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The Nation

Eskimo Troops Brace for Iraq

Alaskan Guard units are called up for the first time in decades. Villages worry about losing men.

June 05, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

KONGIGANAK, Alaska — For nearly 50 years during the Cold War, being in Alaska's National Guard meant a potential front-line deployment -- right at home. "Our greatest adversary was our next-door neighbor," said Guard Maj. Mike Haller. Guard units around the state trained regularly for a Soviet invasion.

The Soviets never did invade, and units in the far western reaches of the Alaskan bush were never activated.

But now, for the first time since World War II, Guard reserve troops in tiny Yupik Eskimo villages such as Kongiganak are being called up, and this time they are being sent halfway around the world -- to Iraq.

The Iraq deployment in western Alaska comes at an especially poignant time: Late spring is known as "breakup" in the Alaskan bush, when the ever-lengthening days finally melt the snow and ice that have blanketed the tundra for more than half the year and kept it eerily quiet.

But as the Yupik men at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River ready themselves for the hunting, fishing and seal-catching that still provide a significant component of people's diets here, they find themselves preparing for a breakup of an almost unfathomably different sort.

In this village of 386 people, six men have been notified to report for duty next month. Though all the men knew they could be called when they signed up years ago for Guard duty -- an important source of cash here -- several said they were struggling to adjust to the reality.

"When I signed up, I never thought I would go to war; I mean, you never really think of Alaska being at war with anybody," said Harold Azean, 23, a Guard specialist.

Ben Lupie, 30, a Kongiganak carpenter who is also going to Iraq, said he was optimistic that all the men would come back alive.

"Us being a hunting people, I think it gives us an advantage," he said, going into an impressive series of mimes: the light prancing of a caribou, the ripple of a fish just below the surface of a river, even the flapping wings of the ducks, cranes and geese that are just arriving on spring migration.

"We notice the tiniest motions," Lupie said. "So I think we'll be aware if something suspicious is up, and we'll know how to react."

The call to Kongiganak comes as the National Guard's involvement in Iraq is set to wind down -- there are now 23,000 Guard troops there, and the Pentagon announced recently that it was hoping to phase out Iraq rotations of the National Guard, perhaps as early as 2007. The call-up of the Kongiganak men has not been affected by the recent news; once a unit is activated, it has to be on duty for at least a year, with two weeks' leave time for each person.

In World War II, Alaskan Guard troops served in both the European and Asian theaters, and some units were stationed along the Aleutian Islands in anticipation of an attack by Japan. For decades after the war, Alaskan Guard units avoided being called up to other locations because U.S.-Soviet tensions were the dominant geopolitical factor: They were perfectly positioned right where they were.

"During the Cold War years, our National Guard was considered forward-deployed," said Haller, the Guard spokesman. "We were the tripwire."

Since then, Guard units here have avoided duty in places such as Kosovo, or the Middle East in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, because they were the most distantly located and expensive to activate. Those factors have played into the Alaskan units' late entry into Iraq, when Guard units from densely populated Eastern states have seen multiple tours. But today, with all branches of the reserve stretched to the limit by the war in Iraq, it has at last become bush Alaska's turn.

Of the 670 soldiers called up in Alaska, 600 are due to go to Iraq and 70 to Afghanistan, Haller said. They are to ship out in early July and spend about three months training, with exercises intended to "increase unit cohesion" and acclimate them to hot weather, at Camp Shelby, Miss.

"I'm trying to get my head around this, that we are going from one of the coldest places on Earth to one of the hottest," said Eric Phillip, 39, who joined the National Guard in 1985 and had planned to retire from it this year -- a plan that he is obligated to shelve now. "I get hot just thinking about it."

Phillip added, "I don't even know how to explain it to my boys." He has two sons, Aatem, 6, and Tuyan, who will turn 2 this month. "I just say, 'I'm going way far away to help little kids like you be able to go to school just like you do.' "

Kongiganak and other bush villages are hardly a hotbed of support for the war in Iraq. When prodded, many say they think the war has made the world less safe, not more.

But that doesn't mean they are protesting the call-up either.

"The Yupik are a 'don't-go-against-the-flow' people. You learn how to move with the current of the river or you don't survive," said Phillip's wife, Karen, 35, a schoolteacher. "So nobody is actually speaking out against the war. It's like speaking out against the weather."

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