NAPASKIAK – A contingent of camouflaged National Guard members and top leaders – including the nation's top Army Guard general -- are trying to make a mark this week in Southwestern Alaska as the state works to resurrect a rural military force.
Snow was blowing as they traveled Tuesday on the frozen Kuskokwim River from Bethel to Napaskiak in a convoy of tracked military rigs, SUSVs, or small unit support vehicles. They met with village residents and showed Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, the Arlington, Virginia, based director of the Army National Guard, a quick glimpse of life in village Alaska.
"This is the best I've ever heard," said Sgt. Joseph Sallaffie, one of just three full-time Army Guard members – counting one on temporary assignment -- who work out of the Bethel's oversized guard armory. The still-pristine building near the airport was a product of such advance planning that by the time it opened in 2011, it no was longer needed. Sallaffie was beyond excited at the possibility of boosting long-diminished rural numbers.
In Napaskiak, about 7 miles south of Bethel on the ice road, school was out of session because of Slavic, the Orthodox Christian Christmas celebration that absorbs many Yup'ik villages each January with a week of prayers, feasts and carols. But bleachers in the small school gymnasium — which the National Guard rented for the occasion — soon filled with residents, including families of former guard members from the village who were being honored anew. One 11-year-old boy said afterward he already wanted a military career, maybe in special forces.
Brig. Gen. Laurie Hummel, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard and part of Gov. Bill Walker's Cabinet, told the crowd the state wants to restore what was once a vital backbone in rural Alaska — but for now it will sidestep the guard's hard-to-meet standards.
Instead, she said, the state wants to reshape the state militia and install it across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta with locals getting the benefit of training that could translate into regular jobs. The state also is examining whether the guard itself can be revitalized in the Bush, even as it is slowly scaling back around the country.
She was backed by Kadavy, who said the national organization wants to see what is possible.
"We don't want to make them less," he said this week in Bethel. "But we want to be inclusive."
A lost tradition
The Alaska Army National Guard used to draw hundreds of rural Alaskans with intense training, part-time paychecks and a chance to develop as village leaders.
"It helped them stay where they came from and be part of their growth and the organization and development of those areas," said Rick Halford, a former state Senate president who put attention on the guard issue in 2014 when he co-chaired Walker's transition team.
"All the older gentlemen would turn green once a month," joked Orthodox priest Elia Larson, a former Marine who grew up in Napaskiak and now is pastor of St. Sophia Church in Bethel.
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, 600 to 700 guard members used to train during monthly drill weekends. Kotzebue and Nome had big forces, too. Now the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is down to 40 guard members. A battalion that includes the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta's airborne unit is being reconfigured into an infantry battalion. The unit will make its last jump Thursday morning on the tundra at Bethel's edge, guard leaders said.
Prestatehood, the Alaska Territorial Guard — known as the Eskimo Scouts — helped protect the homeland in World War II through about 6,400 volunteers in village-based units.
"It was almost two generations ago," Hummel said in an interview. "Communities have lost that tradition."
Rural enlistment began to spiral down as the lure faded, guard leadership weakened and military standards blocked many from a chance at a guard career.
Alaska Army Guard force size has dropped from a peak of about 2,700 in the early 1990s to just over 1,800, with most of those members in urban centers, not villages like in the old days, said Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Hildreth, the Alaska National Guard's senior noncommissioned officer, who used to work in Bethel and is helping with what the Walker team calls "rural engagement." In Napaskiak, he was greeted with hugs and handshakes from old friends.
Most of Alaska's 100 or so armories were shuttered or turned over to government and tribal entities for offices, gyms or community buildings. Only 17 are still operating, Hummel said. The state wants to repurpose vacant armories, she said.
Rural leaders including Myron Naneng, head of the Association of Village Council Presidents, have been asking to bring the guard back.
Walker is proposing a rural military initiative centered in Bethel. He is asking the Legislature for $2.3 million the first year.
At least at the start, it would bypass the guard and its standards, including a requirement for a high school diploma. Before a waiver for Alaska ended around 2007, rural residents who were enrolled tribal members could get into the guard with a ninth-grade education, Hildreth said.
Other requirements also keep rural Alaskans out, Hummel said. Some people can't pass hearing tests, in part because of childhoods spent around snowmachines and four-wheelers, she said. Guard travel rules say members must pay their way to weekend drills, which can cost village residents more than the weekend's pay, she said.
The money problem
Two key legislators said the idea is a good one but will be challenging to pull off this year with the state budget squeezed hard by diminished oil revenues.
"I'm open to discussion because it helps the rural communities in many ways and it extends the training potential, the job potential," said state Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, the incoming chairman of the joint House-Senate Armed Services Committee, and a former Air Force enlistee.
State Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, chairman of the House Military and Veterans' Affairs Special Committee and a former Marine, said a military program could develop good role models in the Y-K Delta, which suffers from deep traumas that materialize in alcoholism, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
But, Coghill noted, "anything that costs us money this year, we have to find the money from someplace else."
The governor's proposal would reshape the little-known volunteer state militia, the Alaska State Defense Force, which runs on state money. The defense force currently has 86 members, none from the Bush.
The Walker administration is proposing to turn it into something that functions more like the National Guard, with regular drills, part-time pay and training that could be in conjunction with the guard proper. The budget request says "a cadre of rural leaders must be developed to help grow engagement off the road system and bridge the gap to Guard expansion."
A battalion would be established over three to five years with an 81-member headquarters in Bethel and three 77-person companies, made up of four-to-five person scout teams across the Y-K Delta, under the plan.
Lt. Col. John James, director of operations for the Alaska State Defense Force, said a signal detachment will be established to specialize in communications.
If normal channels between Bethel and the outside world were severed, the militia could use military communications to connect with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, James said. Those technical and leadership skills could also help militia members get regular jobs, he said.
Unlike with the guard, militia units remain under the governor's control and aren't federalized and deployed in war. In the 2000s, village residents — some of whom had never before left Alaska — were called up and sent to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait for year-long tours that took them away from home duties as hunters and fishermen. That was hard on village residents, Sallaffie said.
The state also wouldn't be bound by Alaska National Guard standards and could instead consider each applicant individually, James said. While the organization generally requires a high school diploma, there's room for flexibility, he said.
The Alaska guard has been bringing up national leaders -- including a doctor who looked into the hearing issue -- to show how different the state is.
In Napaskiak, guard members were invited into the home of Martha and Jimmy Evan for a Slavic feast. They ate chicken soup and fluffy rolls, cake and akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream made with sugar, berries and Crisco. In the gym, the Rev. Vasily Fisher, priest of St. James Parish in Napaskiak, said prayers in memory of soldiers who had died, and to keep others safe.
This weekend, the Alaska National Guard plans to man checkpoints for the Kuskokwim 300, the sled dog race that draws top mushers and is a big event in the region.
Kadavy said he was impressed by the commitment of the people in Napaskiak. Hummel will lead the direction of the guard in rural Alaska, but it's clear that specialties like an armored unit with tanks or a cyberunit that needs reliable Internet, wouldn't be a good fit, Kadavy said. Other roles, he said, could again mesh Bush Alaska with the guard, such as logistics or water purification.
By midafternoon, the wind had died down, and the snow had stopped falling. Two guard Blackhawk helicopters, one based in Bethel and the other in Nome, landed on the ice at Napaskiak's edge to bring the contingent back to Bethel. Village residents came by snowmachine and four-wheeler to watch.