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NEWS | Aug. 10, 2023

Navy celebrates Sol Atkinson for legacy of service to country, Alaskan veterans, community

By Balinda O'Neal Alaska National Guard

The U.S. Navy announced its profound tribute to the legacy of Alaska Native Solomon ‘Sol’ Atkinson, a steadfast servant of both his nation and native community of Metlakatla, Aug. 7.

The USNS Solomon Atkinson, a future Navajo-class Towing, Salvage, and Rescue (T-ATS) ship, is a testament to a life of service.

“The Navy couldn’t have picked a better person to name a ship after. It brings tears to my eyes thinking that they are going to honor him this way,” said Verdie Bowen, the director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs. “If you want a representation for Alaska on a ship, it’s Sol.”
Enlisting in the Navy in 1952, Atkinson etched his name in history as the first Alaska Native to join the underwater demolition teams, the precursor to the renowned Sea-Air-Land Teams. As the SEAL Teams emerged in 1962, Atkinson's commitment led him to become one of the inaugural Navy SEALs and a plank owner, a foundational member, of SEAL Team 1.
Across continents and conflicts, Atkinson's service was defined by his dedication to safeguarding freedom. He deployed to Korea and served three tours in Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his courage and sacrifice.
Bowen said that his expertise extended beyond the battlefield as he trained 48 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, in underwater weightless simulations. As a SEAL instructor he taught new generations of recruits.
Completing 22 years of active naval service, Atkinson retired in 1973 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. However, his commitment to his fellow veterans and community remained undiminished.

Bowen said that Atkinson was instrumental in founding the Metlakatla Veterans Association in the early 90s, igniting his role as a steadfast advocate for his fellow servicemen and women. After establishing the first veteran’s organization on Annette Island, he was elected as the mayor of Metlakatla.

In 2009, he attended the inaugural Tribal Veterans Representative Class in Ketchikan, officially taking on the responsibilities of advocating and assisting veterans in his community as well as monitoring federal and state veterans’ benefits offered to those who served. His duties ensured community leaders, tribal governments, veterans, and their families were educated about veterans’ benefits.
“He broke down barriers and bridged qualified individuals to benefits they once thought unattainable and took care of other people before himself,” said Bowen, affirming that he helped other veterans get their VA benefits before he even applied for them. “Every day was Veterans Day in Sol’s eyes.”
Bowen said that Atkinson's humility, resilience, and compassion were his hallmark traits and led to his recognition as the Alaska Governor’s Veterans Advocacy Award recipient in 2018 – a unanimous selection by members of the Alaska Veterans Advisory Council.

“He was just a gigantic person and I’m not talking about him being six foot something,” said Bowen, who grew up in southeast Alaska and knew Atkinson since he was a kid. “He was a great storyteller and would share tall tales of shipwrecks, gold, and treasure. He was the one that made me interested in diving and I couldn’t even swim.”  
In the spring of 2019, his contributions were displayed as part of the Avenue of Heroes Program by the City of Coronado, California, a tribute that underscores his enduring impact.
Atkinson died in July 2019, leaving a legacy that resonates through his family, community, and those who served alongside him. Bowen said that Navy SEALs from Kodiak and San Diego offered a heartfelt send-off in Metlakatla, commemorating his life and service.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro's announcement ensures that future generations of sailors will be inspired by his dedication, compassion, and unwavering service to his country and community.

“For him to go from a local Alaskan hero to having his name on a ship is remarkable,” said Bowen. “It just means that for the generations to come, not only will Alaskans know that the ship is named after him but every sailor that gets on the ship will know about his accomplishments.”