SPEECH: U.S. Army Listening Session (Fairbanks)

Good evening Interior Alaska and to our visitors from Washington, DC, welcome to the Golden Heart City of Fairbanks.

Last evening I had the opportunity to beam in to the Anchorage listening session. My testimony last evening focused on Alaska’s value to the Army. I spoke about our strategic location – the fact that our Army can get where it needs to go from Alaska faster than anywhere else. Our superior training grounds. The exceptional performance of Alaska trained troops in battle. The fact that US Army Alaska is regionally aligned with Asia and the Pacific. We are perfectly positioned to execute the strategic rebalance to that region directed by the administration’s current national defense strategy. And we talked about the Army’s future in the Arctic. Major General Mike Shields has positioned US Army Alaska as a center of excellence for operating in high altitudes and cold climates.  

The spirit of Billy Mitchell’s 1935 observation – Alaska is the most strategic place in the world lives on today at Fort Wainwright, at the Northern Warfare Training Center, in the radar rooms at Clear Air Force Station, at Eielson Air Force Base, soon to be the home of the first F-35’s in the Pacific and at Fort Greely – the home of our nation’s ground base missile defense system. Nor is the spirit of General Mitchell’s remarks lost on Army planners in the Pentagon. Here in Interior Alaska we await the arrival of the Gray Eagle UAV and the Apache helicopter – all part of the Army’s plan to bolster our Stryker Brigade.

Just as I did last evening I could once again appeal to your brain with 20 reasons why Alaska is the best place to site the troops, regardless of overall force structure numbers. We believe that we are simply the best. 

But tonight I will speak from the heart. I would like to share a defining year in the career of Major General Mike Shields, the Commander of US Army Alaska. When Mike Shields was Colonel Shields he commanded what was then the 172nd Stryker Brigade based here at Fort Wainwright. The brigade known as the “Arctic Wolves”.

In 2005, the Arctic Wolves were deployed to northern Iraq. Their main mission was to provide security training to the Iraqi Army and police in Mosul – a town that is very much in the headlines today. They performed with great distinction in places that are today have sadly fallen under the control of ISIL.

They did that job well. So well that at the last minute – in the summer of 2006 – after one year in combat, and after hundreds of the brigade had already returned to Fort Wainwright – the plans changed.

The Arctic Wolves were told that they would be extended in Iraq for an undetermined period of time. Planes destined for Fairbanks were turned around in mid-air. Families were told to put the “welcome home” signs away. And members of the brigade who were already home were told not to get comfortable - they were going back.

The decision to extend the Arctic Wolves was traumatic in every respect. One week the families were told which day to await the return of their loved ones. The next they were told the brigade was on indefinite extension. Yes, when you are an Army family you need to expect the unexpected. But nobody expected this.

The Army surged military family support to Fort Wainwright – lessons were learned on how to help families through the trauma of extended deployment. The Army Family Covenant was born from this experience.

But what the Army delivered is nothing compared to how this community rallied in support of our military families.       The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner began publishing a weekly column – entitled “Until They Come Home”.   

Authored by Michelle Cuthrell, a military spouse, the column was key in helping the community understand how military families were coping.

Random acts of kindness – formal and informal – became the norm. I’m talking everything from a quickly arranged military appreciation picnic hosted by the Secretary of the Army to help put snow tires on the family truck that fall. No request too big… no request too small. 

The extension brought Secretary Rumsfeld to post for a town hall meeting. But when the Secretary suggested that the deployment might be further extended beyond Christmas, this town came together in protest. The people of Interior Alaska packed meetings of the Borough Assembly for weeks to express their solidarity with our Army families. Bring home the 172nd by Christmas was the battle cry and it was heard.

For six months in 2006 there was nothing more important to this community than the welfare of our military families.  During those six months this town shared every stage of grief with our friends. Denial, anger, depression and finally acceptance.         And I’m not speaking in the third person. General Shields will attest to my personal level of involvement.

For that six month period there was no divide between post and town. No gate to separate us. We were them. They were us. We were one. And because of that extraordinary partnership General Shield’s troops were able to get their jobs done secure in the belief that their families were well cared for.

There are many towns throughout the United States that regard themselves as military friendly. But here in Alaska we set the standard.  We are big enough to offer military families every amenity they might desire – great schools, libraries, outstanding recreational facilities, a vibrant arts community. Yet we remain small enough…intimate enough to care.  

I don’t mean care in a passive sense. I don’t mean care only on patriotic holidays. When our military families face a crisis, Alaskans stop and respond as if the crisis involved one of their own. Like our troops, we were tested and we have proven our mettle.

The strength of our Nation is our Army. The strength of our Army is our Soldiers; the strength of our Soldiers is our families.

I would therefore suggest to you that no criterion is more important in deciding where the base the finest soldiers in the world than a community’s commitment to the military family.

Nobody but nobody treats our soldiers and their families better than the people of Alaska. Nobody! Thank you, god bless and good evening.