Togiak rallies behind its soldiers

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- With two native sons serving in Iraq, the Bristol Bay village of Togiak is sending what it can to make them comfortable -- letters, baby wipes, dried fish.

But the akutaq will have to wait until Cpl. Mariano Peters and Pvt. Everett Arnariak return home to the village of 800 people. Village elders had asked if they might send the popular Yup'ik dessert -- a mixture of Crisco, sugar and berries, said Kristy Kritz, who is coordinating the care packages for the Togiak Traditional Council.

No, she told them. But bring dried salmon and herring or the spicy jerked meat known as keningyuk, whether it's moose, caribou or seal.

''It would probably make them feel closer to home, eating their own food,'' Kritz said in a telephone interview from the village. ''It's important they know we're thinking about them, and how much Togiak cares for both of them.''

Peters and Arnariak are among the many Alaskans now deployed to Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Arnariak, known in Togiak by his Yup'ik name, Sama, enlisted a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He had completed two years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks but was restless, said his mother, Eva Wassillie.

''He was studying to be a music teacher,'' she said from her home. As she spoke, she thumbed through his mementos: band commendations, a 1994 award for his high school clarinet quartet, best kindergarten student of 1985.

''I'm proud he's defending our country,'' Wassillie said. But she misses her boy, now 23.

Peters is younger, 21, but has more service experience. He enlisted in the Marines a month after graduating in 2000. Known locally as Keefa, Peters is in an anti-tank platoon in the ''2/5 Marines'' -- Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment of the First Division.

No one in Togiak knows Peters' exact location, but his cousin and good friend Eric Gosuk said he's traced Peters' combat unit via satellite television and the Internet.

''They're right in Baghdad,'' he said.

Gosuk, a Navy veteran, said he isn't worried about his pal.

''No, I think he's going to come back safe,'' he said. ''Keefa is your regular Marine. I think he could take care of himself.''

Outward appearances would suggest that Arnariak might be safer. He's part of a supply unit in the Army's Third Infantry. But supply convoys have endured sniper fire and ambushes.

Paul Frost, pastor at Togiak Baptist Mission, said he had no fear for either. Both are friends of his sons and former Bible study students. Both are expert marksmen.

''They come from these villages being sharpshooters, because if you're a bad shot you go hungry,'' Frost said. ''You go seal hunting, you're aiming at a little head bobbing in the water. A lot of times Keefa would grab the rifle, throw it up to his shoulder and BOOM! -- that quick!''

Togiak has few trees, so there are no yellow ribbons waving, said Frost's wife, Laura. There are no Women in Black protesting in silence or flag-waving demonstrations on Togiak's graveled street corners. Mostly people watch the news and pray, she said.

''A lot of our Natives are very spiritual people, so they pray a lot. And when the news comes on, we listen for that number, Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment. So far we haven't heard it yet,'' she said.

Since the war began, televisions have come on early and stayed on late in Togiak, picking up satellite signals from half a world away. Gosuk said every time he visits his mother, ''she's watching the news looking for Keefa or Sama, and I'm pretty sure it's the same in all the households.''

In many Alaska villages, the web of family relations is strong and wide, and Togiak is no different, said Richard Rohrbacher. Most residents can claim one or both soldiers as cousins, nephews or friends, he said.

A wellness conference was dedicated to the two soldiers. Their addresses are posted on bulletin boards. This week the youth council is collecting for the care packages.

In addition to the usual candy, cookies and chips, premoistened towelettes are in high demand.

The last time Wassillie talked to her son, that's what he wanted, ''lots and lots and lots of them,'' she said with a laugh. ''He said he misses showering every day. He takes bird baths.''

But coordinator Kritz said Togiak residents will send what they have, and she is expecting dried salmon, herring, moose and seal -- which could be a surprise for their comrades when the package arrives.

''We like to share here, and we're thinking that because Sama and Keefa will be getting lots of stuff, they'll share it with all the other soldiers they're with.''

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