By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 23, 2007 - Pvt. Elias Kvasnikoff is traveling down a dusty road through a small Iraqi village when suddenly his Humvee lurches, the windows shatter and the convoy comes to a screeching halt. He has taken a direct hit by an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade. If he's not dead, he's lucky. He is lucky, because Kvasnikoff is only training for his deployment nearly halfway around the world from where he will soon deploy as part of a security force.
Kvasnikoff and 200 other Alaska Army National Guard soldiers scheduled to deploy in October are going through pre-deployment training here in a high-tech convoy simulator that allows them to work through realistic scenarios using actual Iraqi landscapes.
He and his unit will join the hundreds of other Alaska Army and Air National Guardsmen who already have deployed to countries around the world in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and for humanitarian missions. Just this month, a small Air Guard contingent returned from the Horn of Africa.
Nearly a quarter of all Guardsmen in the state were deployed in 2006. More of Alaska's Army Guard has gone to war than at any time since World War II. Combine the simultaneous transformation from a Cold War posture, the closing and relocation of an Air National Guard base and the beginning of the Alaska Guard's first association with an active-duty C-17 Globemaster III unit, and supporting the routine state and federal missions such as space surveillance, missile defense and search and rescue, that makes for one busy state.
"We are probably as dynamic in transformation as any state out there," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig E. Campbell, Alaska's adjutant general.
Despite many dramatic changes, which include the Army Guard's 207th Scout Group transforming to a modern battlefield surveillance unit while nearly 600 of its members are deployed and the closing of Kulis Air National Guard Base, Campbell said his roughly 4,400-strong force is doing "exceptionally well."
"I view it as we're doing awfully good. ... We're using people more than we've ever used them before and we're wearing out equipment faster than we ever have before, but we're doing great," Campbell said.
In fact, the Army National Guard in Alaska is manned to 98 percent and recruiting numbers are going up. This is in the midst of what Campbell called their most challenging deployment. The historic deployment of indigenous native Alaskans to the desert sands of Kuwait somewhat shocked some communities.
"The global war on terrorism has caused the Guard to be deployed a lot. In Alaska, in the past, we weren't structured to be used by the Army for long overseas deployments. So the last two years have really been a culture shock for the Army National Guard in Alaska," Campbell said.
The deployment has been particularly tough for those who live in rural villages. Most families in the villages rely on subsistence hunting and fishing to survive long winters without access to outside communities. The Guardsmen will have missed three hunting seasons and a fishing season.
"In rural Alaska, fishing and hunting are what you do to get food to feed your family, and it's usually the male between the ages of 18 and 35 who are out there doing that. And that's the people we sent overseas," Campbell said. "So it's put a lot of pressure on the rural communities. With that absence, what do they do?"
Though soldiers get a paycheck while deployed, grocery stores sometimes are scarce in sparsely populated regions with few passable roads. The isolation means extremely high grocery prices -- milk at $7 per gallon, for example. This can lead to financial difficulties for families who lack a full-time provider bringing in meat needed to survive the long winters.
Campbell credits the supportive, tight-knit communities for reaching out to families of those deployed.
"The rural families are tightly networked communities. Others will step in and share and take care of the family who has the missing spouse, son or daughter," he said. "They are very proud of America. They're very proud of service, and when that individual does leave, the community rallies around the family of the one who is spending time overseas."
Campbell also said his family readiness groups have been working hard to overcome geographical limitations via e-mail and telephone. In addition, a strong veteran base in the communities counsel and mentor those who have family members deployed.
The general said he doesn't anticipate a huge drop in retention due to the increased pace of deployments. He said those who do choose to leave will make room for soldiers who understand the commitment of serving in a post-9/11 National Guard.
"I do think that there will be some that say, 'You know, that wasn't the Guard I joined,'" Campbell said. "I need soldiers, and America needs soldiers, that understand what the National Guard is for the future. This world has changed. On Sept. 11 those strikes against New York City and Washington permanently changed the way we need to look at the world and our own states."
Still, Campbell conceded the current operational tempo has had its impact on the force.
"Can we sustain it forever? No. The equipment is going to break and wear out, and the people need to be citizen-soldiers again. They are not full-time. That's active duty," Campbell said. "The Guard needs to make sure we keep that balance. We need to replace our equipment, and we're going to have to have a breather from these overseas deployments."
Campbell said he sees the next few years as a growth period for the state, as much of the transformation is in its early stages. The battlefield surveillance brigade will be manned, equipped and trained once the majority of its troops return from their deployment this fall. He said he'd also like to expand the space mission, and the Air Guard base move will carry through 2011.
Campbell also said he would like to see more active-duty and Guard associations similar to that between the active-duty 517th Airlift Squadron and National Guard's 249th Airlift Squadron, which will have active and Guard pilots flying the same C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft at different times.
Other active-Guard associations could include the Army at Fort Richardson, he said.
"(We) should train together. (We) should utilize the same type of training fields and equipment," Campbell said. "Isn't tactics overseas all about trusting the guy in the foxhole with you? If you've trained with them, you've practice with them, you know them, and you deploy with them, that trust factor is a lot stronger. I think that would be strong and beneficial to the Army and the Army National Guard."