ST. MARY’S, Alaska –
“Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left.” As a young girl, Tech. Sgt. Sharon Queenie remembers Guardsmen marching down the dirt road in Mountain Village with their ruck sacks strapped to their shoulders, singing cadences.
A 20-mile stretch of road connects Mountain Village to Andreafski High School in St. Mary’s where Queenie found herself speaking with students from her alma mater alongside fellow Alaska National Guardsmen March 31, 2023.
“My father came home with MREs and his ruck sack, and I thought that was the coolest thing,” said Queenie, a surveillance technician with the 176th Air Defense Squadron, who served six years in the Alaska Army National Guard before joining the Air National Guard in 2019. “My name now hangs in the Mountain Village City Hall with the men that I probably watched marching and other members of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
St. Mary’s is nestled against the west bank of the Andreasfsky River and one mile from where the river’s main stem drains into the larger Yukon River before it empties into the Bering Sea. The only way for Guardsmen to get there year-round is by plane or boat.
Recently, the Alaska National Guard partnered with the Association of Village Council Presidents to increase the AKNG presence and understanding about the organization within rural Alaskan communities across the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta. The initiative kicked off in St. Mary’s with presentations from AVCP and AKNG representatives who interacted with students, parents, teachers, and community members.
Queenie said her knowledge, skills, and abilities gained through the AKNG helped her view the community and school in a different light.
“I was that young girl that watched someone in uniform doing something different,” said Queenie, who wasn’t sure what to do with her life when she graduated at 17. “I felt that I have something to offer them, even if it is one perspective way of make a living.”
The AVCP provides community development, education, social services, culturally relevant programs, and advocacy for the people and 56 tribes of Western Alaska. The new initiative provides recruiting information and resources through the AVCP Tribal Job Centers.
“There are [zero] National Guardsmen within our area,” said Syliva Nerby, a St. Mary’s-based member with the AVCP. “I felt that our children would gain some kind of knowledge from all the information that the [AKNG] would bring out to them and hopefully, someone would follow in Sharon’s footsteps.”
Nerby explained that military service could help the students lead a more structured life and is in line with Yup’ik values. Nerby and Queenie both mentioned taking care of each other and giving without anything in return.
“We are told to respect the land and animals. Respect was always enforced and it’s the same for the military,” said Queenie. “We are taught to respect each other’s culture, rank, and background. We are expected to uplift and motivate each other, to help when needed.”
“Going into the National Guard is basically for our people,” said Nerby. “I was told it was to protect us. To protect our people.”
Queenie said that having a local leader, like Sylvia, to be a motivator and facilitator of these projects is important because they have ingrained connections within the community that non-locals might not share.
“Mrs. Sylvia Nerby was able to organize a school and community event that allowed the community members and school children to be excited about our arrival,” said Queenie, who arrived from Bethel in an Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. “The AKNG and AVCP taking these initiatives to improve the well-being of our rural communities is empowering for everyone – the kids and community members see that collaborative change, and I hope it inspires them to continue the trend.”
Nerby said she has had other communities reach out hoping for the initiative to come their way. The AKNG and AVCP are working together with the goal of visiting a different community every month Nerby said.
“I really love my job because it connects me with my people, and I’m helping to guide them to be better people,” said Nerby, who is eager for someone to tell her that they will be joining the military and that what she is doing is working. “It’s just an exciting time to see.”
Like other branches of the military, the AKNG has not been immune to the challenges faced with recruiting Guard members. Unlike most National Guard states and territories, Alaska faces unique geographical extremes that require partnerships with rural Alaskan communities to surmount.
Stretching across 59,000 square miles, the Y-K Delta is one of the largest deltas in the world. The region includes 56 remote communities and approximately 26,000 residents who are not connected to the State of Alaska’s road system.
The only recruiter in the region is an Alaska Army National Guard recruiter, Staff Sgt. Eddie Jones, who is based out of Bethel, roughly 100 miles southeast of St. Mary’s. Alaska Air National Guard recruiters are based out of Anchorage and must travel 400 miles west to reach the community.
Emphasis on recruiting in rural Alaska and the Y-K Delta increased after the remnants of Typhoon Merbok caused dramatic flooding across more than 1,000 miles of Alaskan coastline in 2022. About 170 members of the Alaska Organized Militia, which includes members of the AKNG, Alaska State Defense Force and Alaska Naval Militia, were activated to support the relief operation.
“The first to respond to Merbok where our members from Western Alaska,” said Jones. “Partnerships like the one with AVCP will help us build better relationships with rural Alaskan communities, increase recruiting potential and ultimately enhance operational capabilities.”
Having only been to St. Mary’s twice in the past year, Jones is hoping that the AVCP Tribal Job Centers can assist potential recruits with what is needed to help apply for positions in the AKNG.
“If a tribal member, anybody from our community needs to print or fax something, check email, we can help them with anything,” said Nerby. “We try to hold everyone’s hand in the right direction – wherever they want to go.”