Inside the Gates: Alaska National Guard looks to defend the Arctic with more recruits
Maritime traffic continues to increase in and around the Arctic.
"I think the 800-pound gorilla that everybody is ignoring is what's going on in the Arctic," Nome resident Thomas Vaden said.
As the region starts to warm up, the world will continue to take notice and make use of it.
"That's the new food resource for the world and so that becomes really important," Vaden said.
With increased visitors, come new concerns.
"Marine hazards as the Arctic opens up is another big one and I can't really stress having a response capability out of Nome," said Nome resident Thomas Vaden, who also serves as an emergency medical services trainer.
Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, the commander of the Alaska National Guard, has noticed and is in the process of strengthening Alaska's western coastline.
"We'd love to come back in this area," Saxe told community leaders during a recent trip to Nome. "If there are things that we can do, we want to do. Recruiting is a big part of it but our message is not a hard sell. It's we're all Alaskans and we're part of you and we invite you to become a part of us."
Saxe's mission is to revive 19 armories across the state and staff them with local recruits.
"All over the place, 12 to 15 because then you can be self-sustaining," Saxe said. "My goal is to have 50 here. I think that is a realistic goal based on the population size not just for Nome but for all the surrounding areas."
Fostering and retaining interest in areas without a military presence or full-time recruiter is the challenge Saxe faces in enlisting people off the road system.
"I think that in order to get people interested and involved they've got to see what's actually going on. You know, 'hey that's something that I want to do," John Handleland, former mayor of Nome said. "So bring these training exercises out to the rural areas."
That's exactly what Saxe plans to do starting in June 2020. A full hazard training exercise featuring both the Alaska Army National Guard and Air National Guard is in the works.
"We are going to Bethel, we are going to Nome, Utqiagvik-Barrow. We're going to do that rotation again," Saxe said.
It's referred to in the military as a "milk run" — a non-threatening rotation of visits to show what the military has to offer.
"We need to be aware," Nome mayor Richard Beneville said.
He added, "This is what Western and northern Alaska needs to hear, the legacy of the young people up here depends on the sorts of things we are doing in this room."
Nome had a Junior ROTC program that was quite popular. Lack of funding caused it to be tossed by the wayside. Now the community would like it back.
However, it's not that easy. The program is run and partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and there is a waiting list. Additional funding must also be raised to help support the instructors.
But getting the Junior ROTC program back up and running will be integral in reinvigorating the military presence in the region. Saxe said getting the armories staffed and functioning would also drastically cut down the National Guard's response time to a crisis.
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