Alaska's devotion to military should put mission ahead of economic benefit

Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are here in Alaska to defend the country, not to fill our coffers. We're glad they do, of course, but as cutbacks are considered at Alaska bases -- in line with cutbacks nationwide -- let's think red, white and blue instead of just green.

This week, Alaskans join listening sessions with the Army on the question of what cutbacks should be made to the number of men and women staffing our bases. The dialogue should include our strategic position, the overall needs of the country, and the fact that people genuinely enjoy serving in Alaska and are more likely to re-enlist. It can't all be about protecting the local economy.

There's no sense in shaking your fist and asking, "How could you?" No one wants to fire anyone, no one wants to make people move, it's just the reality we are presented with. In 2013 the Department of Defense claimed it would be downsizing 80,000 military personnel. The most experienced and best educated leaders in the world will not change their mind on national security measures because local businesses get hurt.

You might not like hearing this, you might even think I'm just a grumpy cynic, but I'm allowed to be a grumpy cynic. I gave the majority of my youth serving in the Army. I've fought the fight half a world away. So, let me explain what our mentality should be while viewing the looming threat of base downsizing.

Alaska has been through downsizing before, and the sky didn't fall. During the Cold War, radar stations were built dotting Alaska's coast, to give warning of hostile Russian bomber fleets headed toward our homeland. Each station used to be a mini-base, with housing for dozens, if not hundreds, dining halls, electronics repair shops, even movie theaters. Today, those radar sites still do the job -- but with one or two people and remote controls. Many Alaskans ski idly by at Kincaid Park and Arctic Valley going right past old NIKE nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missile sites; now, there are fighter jets. Did those shutdowns hurt the Anchorage economy? Possibly, but our nation is better off and even safer now.

Anyone who looks at a map can see the strategic value of Alaska. They put the bases here to begin with for a reason. The Army built the entire Alaska Highway so it could resupply the forts here, but what's the greatest resource Alaska has to offer? Alaskans. It's our lawmakers who need to be looking at incentives to show the military that it's worth a high level of investment to maintain troops here. Our population can not only provide a one of a kind location for military members and their families, but we can also assist the United States with any aid required in this transitional period.

In the 2010 census, more than 10 percent of the state's entire population were veterans. I would guess that number has even increased in the last half-decade. Vets want to be here; it's evident. So let's look at opportunities to keep them here. Are we able to look at the National Guard and Reserve recruitment for those who would just as well switch over? Let's expand the ROTC and Green to Gold programs at UAA so enlisted soldiers can get an education and return to active duty upon completion. Can we increase the priority for military spouses to get hired for state jobs? We also need to magnify the services already in place, like transitional workforce training, expedient care from the VA, and what everyone really loves, pure and simple residency.

Alaska is an owner state. By claiming that we need anyone other than ourselves to sustain our own economy, we are weakening our posture. This is the state where a simple carpenter will go to Washington, D.C., and demand more land rights. This is the state that tells the largest oil companies in the world, "You drill or we will." Having the heroic men and women of America's armed forces here is an honor and a privilege. It's also a mutually beneficial relationship. I think I speak for most Alaskans when I say that no one wants to see a single pair of boots leave the state. But we own this land, and we'll do everything we can to make it better, no matter how many or how few troops are stationed here. Buck up folks, we're Alaskans.

Every good patriot takes pride in our service members, but deep in my gut I can't help but feel that Alaskans are currently putting their own needs in front of the military's. Everyone is concerned about the micro market, but that's not a good enough reason to stay. Instead of being upset about what this could do to us, let's show what we can do for them. There are plenty of topics for Alaska to argue about with Uncle Sam and the feds, but when it comes to the nation's heroes, we need to put aside our personal agendas.

There's a truth that people may be having a difficult time swallowing: The military is not here, or anywhere, to support a city's economy. It's easy to forget the end goal of military positioning -- mission readiness. There is no doubt that Alaska provides great locations for the armed forces; soldiers were saluting the flag here long before there was a 49th star on it. But if cuts are going to be made, then cuts are going to be made.

Tim Kacillas is an Army veteran and longtime Alaskan.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.