National Guard hopes to rebuild rural presence
The Alaska National Guard is on a recruiting drive in Northwest Alaska with the objective of growing Guard membership in the region to the point where they can establish self-sustaining units of 12 to 15 personal in Nome and in Kotzebue.
The history of the Guard in rural Alaska stretches back to the Alaska Territorial Guard of WW II but has been interrupted in the past fifteen years by laws, which made it difficult to find suitable candidates that would make rural soldiers. The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1996, banned those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning or even handling firearms. More stringent drug testing weeded out soldiers and recruits who smoked marijuana.
Jennifer Eva Reader of Nome served 20 years in the Guard, retiring in 2008. She was the human resources officer for the First Battalion, 297th Infantry Scouts, the unit based in Nome, Kotzebue, and in the villages.
“We called it the Anchorage National Guard, a joke that General Katkus at the time did not find funny at all,” said Reader. “He was like ‘That’s not going to happen!’”
But Reader was right.
The staffing and the recruits in the battalion shrank to the point where the units were withdrawn and the armories were sublet to other state agencies, such as the Alaska State Troopers here in Nome.
Today there are fewer than 1,800 soldiers in the Alaska National Guard and they are concentrated in Southcentral Alaska. Only 17 of the more than one hundred local armories are active. Village armories stand empty but well-looked after for the eventuality that the Guard will return.
When the 1964 earthquake struck, rural Guard soldiers played an important role in response and recovery. Alaskan Command now estimates that in case of a similar disaster 90 percent of the Guard would be unable to respond. In the rural areas villages have lost the cadre, which managed civil defense and other emergency preparedness. Also gone are the positive social, leadership, and economic benefits of the Guard. The state now seeks to reverse the trend by increasing participation in the Guard and by expanding the Alaska State Defense Force in rural areas. The state aims to accomplish that by removing barriers to participation, such as travel costs to drills and exercises, adopting appropriate entry standards and testing, and by partnering with Congress and national defense leaders.
In 2016 Rep. Don Young submitted H.R. 4424, the Rural Guard Act. This allows for travel pay to drilling rural guardsmen. The Guard created a slate of enlistment waivers for submission to the National Guard Bureau with the cooperation of Alaska Federation of Natives Board of Directors and other leaders. At the request of the Native leaders the waiver program adjusts incrementally over time and expires in ten years.
According to recruiter Sgt. 1st Class Adam Schwartz the Guard is looking for young men and women who are juniors in high school up through age 32 who are in good health and can pass the guard’s exams. “We have well over 200 jobs here in the state of Alaska and right now we have 10 specific jobs that carry a $20,000 signing bonus,” said Sgt. Schwartz. Those positions include mechanical, helicopter pilots and mechanics. And there are jobs for administrative personnel.
“Our intent is to build units with soldiers who are trained and prepared to respond to federal mission requirements if mobilized, and state emergencies when called upon by the governor,” said Lt. Col. Candice Olmstead. “The vision is Alaska Army National Guard soldiers who live in Nome and Kotzebue collaborating with local government, tribal, and civic organizations in programs that build emergency management capacity in the region and provide personal and professional growth opportunities to community residents.”
At the Walker-Mallot Transition Team Conference, held November 2014 at UAA, the decline of the Guard in rural areas was addressed by a working group, which produced a document summarizing the state’s position on the problem. Emil Notti was chair of the committee and the report is available at https://gov.alaska.gov/Walker_media/transition_page/rural-guard_final.pdf.
In Dec. 2014, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott took office, and soon after created a Rural Guard Committee . Their reason for forming the RGC was to identify the level of ANG decline in rural Alaska and seek suggestions to bring it back to life.