Survivors gather on Alaska peaks for those who gave all
Ten years ago, 1st Sgt. Kirk Alkire’s Army unit from Anchorage's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson lost more than 50 soldiers in 15 months.
He was deployed to Iraq during the surge with the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division – an experience that he’ll never forget. On Jan. 20, 2007, three of his soldiers were captured by insurgents.
“They knew we were giving chase to them, and they took them out of the vehicles and executed them and left them on the side of the road,” Alkire said.
The dead men – 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz of Nebraska, Spc. Jonathan B. Chism of Louisiana and Pfc. Shawn P. Falter of New York – were posthumously awarded Prisoner of War medals.
Alkire returned to Alaska with many unseen battle wounds. Always an avid outdoorsman, he started hiking more and returned to a place he had summited before, but now held a whole new meaning.
The trail to Mount POW/MIA is easy to miss. Right off Eklutna Lake Road, there’s no parking lot and no trailhead. In fact, if you don’t know exactly where it is, you would never see it. The trail starts after the Mile 5 marker and quickly disappears; it's a hike unknown to the general public, and to describe it as grueling would be an understatement.
But for Alkire, the physical pain was therapy for his emotional wounds. At 4,280 feet, Alkire felt a sense of connection to his lost comrades and a safe place to talk about the hidden scars of war.
“It's an incredible place for healing and there is no doubt in my mind that these mountains absolutely do heal,” Alkire said.
At the summit is a sturdy metal box of memories. Inside are dog tags and memorial bracelets, many of which Alkire has personally carried to the top. Each one is in a plastic bag with a card that contains a story about the person it belonged to -- memories Alkire writes down so that the veteran will never be forgotten.
Fritz, Chism and Falter are three of those memories.
For Alkire, the mountain provides the freedom to open up and ask for help, something he hopes other people do here -- people like Maeve Nevins Lavtar, who lost her brother Sgt. 1st Class Liam Nevins in Afghanistan in 2013.
“I don't let myself feel the pain 'cause it hurts so much,” Lavtar said.
Lavtar describes her brother as a charismatic and handsome leader -- a Special Forces Green Beret, who was always pushing her to get out into the mountains.
Now, as a Gold Star family member since her brother died serving his country, she says at first her grief was overwhelming.
“It sometimes levels you, so for me when I get hit with the tears I just have to stop and listen to it,” Lavtar said.
However, during a recent trip up the mountain, Lavtar found she could talk about Liam and even talk to him.
“I just knew in that moment that he was still with me and his love is still with me and he's totally got my back," Lavtar said. "Anyone who comes here he's the most badass angel ever.”
On Memorial Day, this trip up the mountain is even more special for her. In February, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board of Geographic Names approved Kirk Alkire’s proposal to name the summit right before POW/MIA as Gold Star Peak.
The move took Alkire months of hard work. He wrote letters to Alaska’s elected officials and started an online petition signed by 1,500 people in all 50 states. Alkire said the passion to rename a mountain for the 300 gold star families in Alaska kept him going.
On Memorial Day, he surprised Lavtar with a Gold Star Peak coin, to honor her brother and her physical and emotional journey to get to the top. Kirk said the connection between military members and their grieving families is strong – and he wanted to make sure she always has her military family to grieve with her.
“It gives you this whole sense of community. It’s not a community you want to be a part of but it’s ok when you find them because we’re all going through something,” Lavtar said.
She is now leading the charge to build a memorial on top of Gold Star Peak, and another one down at the bottom of the mountain at Reflections Lake for those who can’t make the strenuous trip to the summit. In her organized binder, she pulls out a few sample designs that she’s spent hundreds of hours creating. It’s her way of keeping her brother’s memory alive.
Two Chugach summits are now places of healing for those who have lost a military member – and remembrance so that their loved ones will never be forgotten.
Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.