Alaska Reserves, Guard sharing risk, burden abroad

Posted: Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Day after day now, Alaskans hear the reports out of Iraq U.S. forces under attack in this town, fighting back in that town. Soldiers injured and killed.

The news goes on with reports from Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, India and Pakistan.

The information can run into a general stream, to the point that the U.S. war effort in Iraq and its participation in other operations appears only as a military monolith.

A closer look, though, shows deep involvement by individual states through the contribution, under presidential order, of their National Guard units.

For Alaska, residents may have to think back to territorial days to find a time when its National Guard troops have been so busy in international events. As a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which encompasses the state's Guard units, put it the other day: ''We're not surprised anymore when we get orders.''

In numbers, Alaska's personnel level doesn't rise to that of many other states. But Alaska is a very large small town, and the deployment of friends and neighbors even in small numbers are events worthy of note.

Today, for example, five Alaska Air National Guard members from Fairbanks are on assignment in Iraq driving trucks for the Army, which was short of drivers. They've been there three months and will remain for quite some time yet.

Today, also, two Alaska Army National Guard members, one each from Anchorage and Eagle River, are working with Mongolian forces in Iraq.

And there are others, of course.

Alaska Guard members have gone abroad from across the state, leaving their homes in Nome, Bethel, Kwethluk, Juneau, Wasilla and other communities.

In Iraq, National Guard units and Reserve units of the regular military account for about 35 percent of the total force. That number is expected to rise with a large-scale rotation of forces beginning in July. Perhaps that will mean more Alaska units heading into harm's way.

But such greater reliance on units like those of the Alaska National Guard also brings something that many communities may not have expected: injury and death to fellow residents serving in a military branch that the public does not easily associate with the blood of war.

A recent report noted that National Guard and Reserve troops have accounted for 15 percent to 20 percent of the monthly U.S. death total since the Iraq war began. The percentage rose to 28 percent in May and will be higher by the end of June, a month in which 15 of the first 32 U.S. personnel who died were members of the Guard or Reserve. A recent Associated Press story indicates that some states are reporting their first Guard unit combat deaths since World War II. Alaska has been fortunate through the war in Iraq, however, for it has not had to announce a casualty from the ranks of its Guard units.

May it remain so.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

June 26

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