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DMVA’s Rural Engagement Initiative
Bottom Line Up Front:
- Rural Alaska has a rich history of military membership, especially in the Alaska National Guard. For a variety of reasons over the last few decades, membership has dwindled. It has now been one to two generations since many rural Alaska communities had a core group of community leaders who were military members.
- The Walker-Mallott transition workshop included a group focused on reenergizing “the rural Guard.” Many Alaskans are concerned about the Alaska Guard membership being concentrated on the road system, and the demise of Guard/military influence in rural Alaska.
- Alaska National Guard (AKNG) entry and retention requirements, force structure, and, to a large degree, the stationing plan are dictated by federal regulations and funding. Force structure for all components of the military is decreasing. AKNG is being forced to contract over the next few years. We cannot grow new force structure without assignment and resourcing by the federal government.
- AKNG leadership has been engaging with National Guard Bureau (NGB) leaders and staff to try to work through the obstacles to rural membership. We have escorted three groups of influential staff and leaders on trips to Bethel and Y-K delta villages. Some obstacles are intractable and will never be overcome, but others can be addressed. For example, in response to a meeting with The Adjutant General (TAG), Congressman Don Young submitted H.R. 4424, the Rural Guard Act of 2016, which would allow for travel pay to drilling rural guardsmen. Internally, AKNG also created a slate of enlistment waivers for submission to NGB with the concurrence of the Alaska Federation of Natives Board of Directors and other local leaders. At Native leaders’ request, this waiver program incrementally adjusts over time, expiring within10 years.
- While working on the immediate Guard obstacles, we need to set conditions in rural Alaska for increased military participation. The most direct way the State of Alaska can do this is through the Alaska State Defense Force (ASDF), which is solely under the control of the Governor.
By the end of World War II, some 6,400 Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) troops were on duty across rural Alaska. They monitored Alaska’s 6,640 miles of coastline and also open tundra, watching for enemy vessels and aircraft. They practiced civil defense drills with the citizens of their home communities, and comprised a ready force of first responders. In the decades since the ATG transitioned to the Alaska National Guard, the force’s numbers diminished and their coverage footprint shrunk dramatically. Nevertheless, the scouts in the Alaska National Guard continued to provide important spot reports about foreign incursions on US soil that were “below the radar” of the military surveillance scanning the skies for Russian aircraft.
Today, fewer than 1800 Alaska Guard soldiers are concentrated largely in Southcentral Alaska. From more than a hundred local armories during the Cold War, only 17 are active today. Aside from the lack of coordinated surveillance of Alaska’s frontiers – a particular problem given rapidly expanding commercial, recreational, and military use of the Arctic and ever-increasing global attention to the Pacific Rim – the over-concentration of the Alaska Army National Guard and the Alaska State Defense Force poses a risk during a disaster. Alaskan Command estimates in the event of another Good Friday-level earthquake centered in Southcentral Alaska, 90% of Guard personnel in the region would be unable to respond. Whether this prediction proves accurate or not, we acknowledge Guardsmen and ASDF members in such a scenario may be unable to report for duty. In 1964, rural Guard soldiers played an important role in response and recovery to fill this need; today, there are but a handful of rural Guardsmen who could help.
Similarly, the rural villages have lost the cadre that drove civil defense and other emergency preparedness activities. This loss is particularly acute given the increase in number of natural disasters and severity of storms. Along with the loss of readiness and community resilience that has come with the decrease in Army National Guard force strength, rural Alaska has lost significant and positive social, leadership, and economic benefits in villages across the state. Typically, Guard members are also key citizens in their communities; they are local government leaders, mentors to children, role models for young adults, and central figures in community activities. Their training enables Guardsmen to provide needed expertise on Local Emergency Planning Committees. Their training, particularly first aid, also makes them a significant resource to assist VPSOs. The Guard decline has weakened rural communities’ strength and resilience.
We seek to reverse this declining trend in two ways: by 1) increasing participation in the National Guard; and 2) expanding the Alaska State Defense Force in rural Alaska.
We are working to remove barriers to rural Guard participation such as high personal costs of traveling to drills and exercises, implement Alaska-appropriate entry standards and testing, and eventually increase force structure in Alaska by partnering with Congress and national defense leaders. Because these goals necessarily require federal rule changes and demand long-term effort, we are also seeking to immediately expand a state militia over which Alaska exerts complete control, the Alaska State Defense Force (ASDF).