FORT GREELY, Alaska –
Senior leaders of the Alaska Army National Guard dished out hearty meals of turkey, sweet yams and mashed potatoes to service members during a well-established Thanksgiving tradition of leadership serving enlisted service members on Fort Greely, Alaska, Nov. 23.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving marks the change of seasons and the end of harvest. Summer is over and, likely less concerned with crops and yields, Soldiers find themselves facing months of long nights and icy commutes that are typical of Alaskan winters. The midnight sun of summer is a fond memory and temperatures plummet as the holidays approach. For many, the festivities come as a relief for the winter blues, but to those serving far from home it can intensify the absence of family.
Command Sgt. Maj. Julie Small, senior enlisted leader for the Alaska National Guard, said she knows that being assigned to a base in Alaska may be especially daunting for a Soldier. An Army Guardsman for 43 years and an Alaskan since birth, Small fully supports the tradition, as she is very familiar with the unique challenges a Soldier can have in staying connected with a community in Alaska.
“Soldiers can come from all over the world,” said Small. “Maybe their family is with them or maybe not. Being there for them during such traditions like the Thanksgiving dinner, interacting on person-to-person level, shows the Soldiers that the military is their second family.”
Col. Aaron Kelsey, commander, 38th Troop Command, traveled the 320 miles from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Fort Greely to be there in person and serve helpings of honeyed ham, roasted turkey and cranberry sauce on the Soldiers’ waiting trays.
“It’s a great opportunity for leadership to show our support and gratitude,” said Kelsey. “Getting out to talk to the Soldiers and hearing their different experiences and background has a significant impact on how we come together as a team.”
Kelsey has attended similar dinners in his career, but last year marked his first one in Alaska. While conversing with the Soldiers, Kelsey noticed he was coming across multiple Soldiers with a career of six to seven years in Alaska.
“I brought my whole family to the dinner,” said Kelsey. “And hearing Soldiers describe the life they had made for themselves up here was a really good indicator to us of the community that has been fostered within the command.”
In his dress blues, Command Sgt. Maj. John Phlegar, senior enlisted leader of 38th Troop Command, stood behind the food service line doling out squares of buttered cornbread and listening to Soldiers laugh and converse with one another.
“Traditions like these give me and other leaders the opportunity to demonstrate our gratitude in in a manner that’s pretty noticeable,” said Phlegar. “We want to show that we are there for the Soldier, that we recognize what it takes to serve.”
Recalling his own days as a junior enlisted Soldier, Phlegar said he was always a little bit surprised to see leadership stand behind the food line and serve dinners.
“I was a young Soldier deployed in Iraq,” said Phlegar. “Our leadership had flown out to be with us during the holiday, and I remember emotions being high at the time. In environments like that, seeing someone take time and make the effort means a lot to young Soldiers.”
The importance of connecting Soldiers not only with their leadership but with each other during holidays is not lost on Kelsey, Phlegar or Small. All three ardently maintain the sentiment of the military being a “second family” for a service member.
When speaking of their responsibility to the Soldiers, Small remarked on the philosophy of “servant leadership” and how it is the responsibility of the senior leaders to put the Soldier first and demonstrate that with their actions.
“The holidays are a time when families come together,” said Small. “And we are a family of Soldiers. There are many ways, but seeing each other and being happy with each other during the Thanksgiving dinner is one way to feel that bond.”