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Rural Alaska National Guard:

From fighting force to empty armories

 

Pilot Photo

Although the Petersburg Armory was built in 2001 for $463,068, it now sits empty or "mothballed." The facility once stored weapons, gear and computers used for communication training. It also allowed ANG Guardsmen to drill locally, but the two active members in Petersburg are currently required to travel to Juneau for training and drill.

In the early-2000s, the Alaska National Guard (ANG) relied upon a rural presence. Guardsmen of that rural force were deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2006, which was the first time ANG members were deployed to a combat zone since WWII, according to Guardsman Matthew Duddles. The ANG rural presence sharply declined after the deployments ended, and the decline continues to this day with the 761st Military Police Battalion of the Guard in Southeast scheduled to be deactivated by the end of 2017.

"Right now it's extremely diminished," Duddles says. "They seemed to stop recruiting in smaller towns after the height of the war and the deployments."

Duddles joined the ANG in January, 1998, and has worked out of Petersburg ever since. He is a traditional ANG soldier, spending one weekend a month and two weeks a year, training and drilling to keep prepared to serve if called upon. There are others in Petersburg willing to serve, but they end up joining the Navy, the Air Force or the Marines, because ANG recruiters just don't seem to visit town anymore, he says.

In 2006, Duddles was made the training non-commissioned officer (NCO) for Petersburg. At the time, there were 11 ANG members locally, which allowed them to drill at the Petersburg Armory on Haugen Drive. Duddles remained training NCO until 2012.

"My entire time here as the training NCO, I remember the recruiter coming here two times," he says. "And the last time was clear back in 2006 and 2007, then they just stopped."

There are currently two active ANG members in Petersburg, and two in Wrangell.

Duddles says Black Hawk helicopters used to fly recruiters to Mitkof Island, putting on a show for potential recruits and making their presence known. But now, the recruiters have all but stopped coming to town, and the armory is pretty much vacant or as he says "mothballed." The same can be said for many other rural communities in Southeast, like Wrangell and Haines.

"Right now my drilling status is that I have to go to Juneau every time I drill," he says. "I am not allowed to drill in Petersburg anymore."

In Dec. 2014, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott took office, and soon after created a Rural Guard Committee (RGC). 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. Retired lieutenant colonel Simon Brown sat on the committee and has experience being stationed in Southeast.

Brown says one of the major findings of the committee was that several rural armories had been closed down and that people wanting to join the ANG would have to travel to Anchorage or Fairbanks to drill.

"We found that it appeared the Guard was moving toward becoming the Southcentral of Alaska Highway National Guard," Brown says. "There was a lot of interest from people but there were limited abilities for them to join while living in rural communities."

Brown says the ANG units are a reliable resource that can be brought on line fairly quickly, to help a community that is cut off from the rest of the world, and a rural presence is valuable. The committee also suggested to Gov. Walker that Alaska is overdue for a big catastrophe, whether it be an earthquake or other form of natural disaster.

"I believe Alaska needs a rural presence, and I think the citizens of Alaska should encourage the Governor to work with the Army to put those small units back in place," Brown says.

The RGC chair Emil Notti, echoes the sentiment of Brown, but he knows it would take a huge effort on both the state and federal levels. Notti says Alaska used to have three rural battalions with 600 men each, and that meant combat ready individuals that also received invaluable training, discipline and important income to rural areas that needed it. But they were disbanded years ago under former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel. The RGC understood the budget constraints the ANG has been under for several years now but he thinks Hickel made the wrong move, because the discipline of ANG training meant better social situations in rural Alaskan life, Notti says.

"I know people that retired as captains after spending their career in the rural ANG," he says. "I know some of the old retired Guard guys are not happy with what's happened."

Brigadier General Laurie Hummel, Adjutant General of the ANG, knows the loss of a rural presence has hurt Alaska's ability to develop leaders and introduce managerial skills to many communities around the state. Hummel had multiple individuals approach her to voice their displeasure with the current status of the ANG when she recently attended the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.

Hummel says people are desperate to bring the Guard back to its former prestige and prominence, and many are frustrated with the lack of Guard participation in rural areas. In fact, she is currently working a Rural Engagement Campaign Plan, to address the issue that will be presented to Gov. Walker and Lt. Gov. Mallott before the end of the year.

Hummel says the 761st Military Police Battalion of the Guard in Southeast will be deactivated by the end of 2017, but the ANG leadership is looking for answers on how to revitalize a rural presence in the face of budget cuts. However, increased recruiting standards are not helping the situation nationally or locally in the state of Alaska.

Increased standards for physical requirements and a reduced allowance for moral waivers, means increased difficulties for recruiting. Over 70 percent of the recruitable population, meaning men and women between the ages of 17-25, do not qualify nationally, and that percentage is even higher in Alaska. Moral waivers allow recruits with a misdemeanor charge on their background to join the ANG. Certain misdemeanors bar recruits from bearing arms, such as domestic violence, and these limit the opportunity for individuals to carry guns. Other misdemeanors like DUI or disorderly conduct are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Ronald Clarke, Special Assistant/Legislative Liaison, Alaska Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs says in addition to higher recruitment standards, funding is a big hurdle, and federal funding comes from the National Guard Bureau (NGB). However, the NGB often fails to realize how different Alaska is compared to the Lower 48 and the obstacles its vast rural areas present. The NGB model relies heavily on the fact that most Guard members can travel to weekend drills at a central location that can be driven to within an hour or so, Clarke says.

"NGB gets in this mindset, back there on the East Coast, that that model works for everybody," he says. "That's just not a model that's going to work for Alaska, so we've got some convincing to do with the NGB on that front."

In Alaska, travel via the Alaska Marine Highway System to and from drill exercises and other official activities is available at no cost to Guard members, according to Hummel. Travel vouchers can defray some of the cost for other forms of travel, but that is not always the case. Hummel says her leadership is actively pursuing changes to the federal regulations to ease the cost of travel and increase interest for those thinking about joining the Guard. Hummel even brought up the issue to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, recently. Gov. Walker has also taken a similar message directly to President Obama, according to Hummel.

"It's outrageous to think that you can expect somebody to come and get paid for two days of drill, and then spend four times that to get there and get back," Clarke says.

But for now, Duddles and other ANG members will continue to travel in order to fulfill their commitments and serve their country. Brown and Notti, will keep hoping the Guard will regain its former form but until then the armories in Petersburg and Wrangell will sit vacant.

Alaska National Guard formation

The Alaska National Guard was originally formed in 1940-41. The Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) provided historical roots for the contemporary ANG.

In 1942, the ATG was organized as a military reserve force formed in response to attacks on U.S. soil in Hawaii. The ATG's job was to provide early reconnaissance for enemy activity. Known as "Eskimo Scouts," they were often referred to as the "eyes and ears of the north." The ATG was disbanded in 1947, but during its existence over 6,000 volunteers had served from over 100 communities, without pay.

In 2006, the ANG was comprised of approximately 1,850 soldiers and maintained 77 armories and other facilities around the state, including Fort Greely.

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Pilot Photo

The vacant Wrangell Armory was built in 1982 for $58,000. There are currently two active ANG Guardsmen living in Wrangell, who must travel to drill.

The following appeared in the Wrangell Sentinel - Nov. 1, 1940:

Formation of a National Guard unit in Wrangell took a step forward last night with the visit here of Major Jesse E. Graham and Sergeant Hamilton H. Bond, detailed to Alaska by the Army to assist the Territory in setting up the organization. At a meeting in the Elks Hall attended by about 30 men and presided over by Mayor Van H. Fisk, Major Graham outlined the requirement of a guard unit here, its purposes from a military defense standpoint and how it fits into the general defense plan in the north. He spoke later in the Wrangell Institute. If between 30 and 35 eligible men can be enlisted, a platoon half a company will be formed here with the other half platoon in Petersburg, according to the present plan, he said. If 66 men can be enlisted, a full company will be formed here. Plan is to use the gymnasium as a drill hall for the present.

 

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