KTUU: ‘It’s the little things that makes the difference’: Alaska service members offered free flight home

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s a long way from Alaska to Texas. Just ask Pfc. Mike Godinez-Martinez.

The 18-year-old reported to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson from Texas just a month ago for his first duty station.

“Alaska to Texas, that’s the farthest north point of the United States to the farthest south,” Godinez-Martinez said.

And up until recently, going back home to where his family lives in San Antonio was not in the picture for him, or many of his other fellow rookies — not even for Christmas. But that’s all about to change after Godinez-Martinez and countless other service members received an early Christmas gift.

“We’re able to see our families this Christmas and have reason to why we join,” Godinez-Martinez said.

Service members stationed in Alaska are eligible to receive a free, round-trip ticket to their home of record one time during their three-year tour. Service members who bought a ticket home since Dec. 23 can apply to be reimbursed for their ticket. The provision is part of the Don Young Arctic Warrior Act, which Sen. Lisa Murkowski spearheaded in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. Murkowski worked alongside Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congresswoman Jackie Speier to write the act.

“Our servicemen and women deserve to be able to be connected with their families,” Murkowski said. “It’s a morale booster. It’s something that says, ‘We appreciate you but we also recognize that service in Alaska can sometimes be challenging.’”

From 2018 to 2021, Alaska documented 29 military deaths linked to suicide. In April 2022, Sullivan along with Speier attended listening sessions on military bases within the state to learn more about the crisis.

“Ensuring Alaska’s service members and their families are properly cared for has always been one of my highest priorities. Last year, former Congresswoman Jackie Speier and I held listening sessions at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Fort Wainwright following the tragic increase in suicides on Alaska’s bases,” Sullivan shared in a statement. “During these sessions, we heard from hundreds of soldiers, spouses, and mental health practitioners about the special challenges they faced being based in Alaska. These listening sessions resulted in our Don Young Arctic Warrior Act.”

Murkowski says there is not one silver bullet when it comes to the treatment of mental health, but said there needs to be more mental health professionals in the community and on base and less of a stigma surrounding seeking help.

“Sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference ... for a solider who is just feeling like he’s got to have some family love and then he can give it [his] all. He can do everything that his country is asking of him, come back to Alaska and be strong and be the soldier that he wants to be,” Murkowski said.

Godinez-Martinez said he now plans on going home in December in time to celebrate his older brother’s 21st birthday. Right now, he said his mother is the only one who knows about his plans to return home. His arrival this winter will be a surprise for his father, brother, and 15-year-old sister.

“I hope they don’t see this,” Godinez-Martinez laughed.

John Pennell, the 11th Airborne Division Chief of Media Relations, agreed that connection with family is critical for military members,

“What we find across the military really, is a really strong tie to the family back home. So for us to be able to do our job, it’s important to be able to maintain that relationship,” Pennell said.

That rings true for Godinez-Martinez, who said his family is what inspired him to join the Army.

“I love them dearly,” Godinez-Martinez said.

By:  Georgina Fernandez
Source: KTUU