ALAKANUK (AP) -- The Alaska Army National Guard is making a push to increase the number of Alaska Natives who serve in the Guard.
The Rural Affairs Program, which began last November, is aimed at reversing a trend that began with the end of the Cold War -- the shrinking of the Guard.
Col. Gregory Austin, the officer in charge of the program, came up with the idea as a way to reverse the decrease in members and improve the Guard's relations with rural communities.
The program received authorization in January to target three villages this year: Alakanuk, Kotzebue and Manokotak. Guard members have visited Alakanuk twice and Kotzebue three times. Outreach efforts to Manokotak are on hold because poor weather canceled trips there.
''The strongest, most consistent members of the Guard were the Alaska Native population,'' said Lt. Noel Pediangco, one of two Guard members working full-time on the program. ''About 40 percent of the Guard was Alaska Native at some point. Now the number's closer to 30 percent.''
While that's still double the percentage Natives make up of the state population, most of the Guard's 76 armories are in Bush villages.
The vast majority of Alaska National Guard members serve part-time, one weekend per month plus 15 days of annual training.
As the Cold War came to an end about a decade ago, the Army Guard had about 2,600 soldiers, said spokesman Staff Sgt. Jeff Wells.
''We have around 1,800 members of the Army Guard now,'' Wells said during a trip last month to this Yukon Delta village of 652. ''We'd love to have more than that.''
Some Guard members were let go as the military downsized after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The layoffs hurt some parts of rural Alaska.
''It's really hard hit when you have a little village where you have 40 members of a 200-person strong village that are members of the Guard and suddenly 20 of them are without their part-time jobs,'' Wells said.
Others left to pursue other opportunities.
With the loss of soldiers over the past decade and a new president pushing for an increase in military spending and new defense initiatives, the Guard has more positions than it can fill. Recruiters in recent years have struggled to find enough qualified people and retention is down as well, problems also evident in the active duty armed forces.
Each infantry company has 78 slots. Not one company is at full strength. Here in Alakanuk, headquarters of A Company, 1st Battalion, 20 village residents are Guard members. There are another 20 or so from nearby villages, for a total of about 40.
''We could use almost double that,'' Pediangco said.
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