Alaska Guard Troops Report for Duty in Kuwait

By Sgt. Sarah Scully, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait, Nov. 16, 2006 - Instead of climbing aboard a snowmobile to track prey and patrol the vast wilderness, they now slide into military vehicles and patrol a sandy wasteland, looking for suspicious activity.

Leaving behind frozen tundra to serve in a scorching desert, hundreds of soldiers from the Alaska National Guard have taken over the quick-reaction force and other security measures here. As the largest deployed unit of the Alaska National Guard since World War II, the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, has important missions to accomplish during the next year in support of 3rd Army/U.S. Army Central in Kuwait.

The unit has a diverse population of soldiers with unique skills to succeed at those missions while stationed at camps Navistar, Buehring and Virginia. The unit has a large segment of minorities - roughly a third of the soldiers are of Eskimo or American Indian heritage.

"There's nothing in this theater that's going to put them out," said Lt. Col. Duff Mitchell, the unit's commander. "Some guys have killed many bears - they're not worried about insurgents."

Each region of the "Land of the Midnight Sun" contributed soldiers to travel halfway around the world to guard and defend fellow servicemembers. Many of the soldiers come from military families, and Alaskans have a history of volunteering to serve their country in times of war.

"It's almost a way of life out there that's been passed down from generation to generation," said Command Sgt. Maj. Alan Feaster, the battalion command sergeant major.

While most people might find native Alaskans and the Kuwaiti desert contrasting and incompatible, these soldiers look at it differently. The flat and barren desert with occasional camps resembles the frozen tundra of northern Alaska, where remote villages dot the landscape. And many have already confronted in the tundra the hardships they may face in the desert.

"When you're in Alaska, and it's 10 degrees below zero, you have to trust yourself, have confidence in yourself," said Mitchell. "And you just have to persevere."

Some of the soldiers are whaling captains, subsistence hunters and fishermen, used to dealing with hardship on a daily basis.

"They grew up with the warrior spirit," said Mitchell. "The 'Warrior Ethos' is a natural part of their everyday life."

With infantry soldiers stationed at Camp Navistar and regularly making trips into Iraq, the unit has many chances to display those warrior skills. The soldiers had an opportunity to bond and get used to warmer weather during a 90-day training session at hot and humid Camp Shelby in Mississippi before the unit deployed to Kuwait.

"That was quite a shock to the system," said Mitchell. "One of the soldiers came up to me and said, 'Sir, this is just like being in a sweat lodge - but there's no door.'"

There are other differences from home the soldiers must endure - among them are culture, food and language. To combat the homesickness, the soldiers have photos of their hometowns picturing tranquil lakes, soaring mountains and bald eagles. They also get care packages from their families, filled with dried caribou, smoked salmon, berry jellies and dried fish.

As a farewell gift, the governor of Alaska brought whale blubber to the soldiers at their departure ceremony in October. With these reminders of home, they look out at the desert and continue their service. Guarding the camps with the Big Dipper constellation emblazoned on the unit's patch, the soldiers live up to the American Indian "Yuh Yek" motto: "Be on watch - ready to fire."

"They've already walked the walk in their own lives," said Mitchell. "They're solid soldiers."

(Army Sgt. Sarah Scully is assigned to the 40th Public Affairs Detachment.)
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