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In northern Wasilla up a dirt road, dusty in the summer and slick with ice in the winter, there are two buildings belonging to the state of Alaska. In the smaller building, a uniformed group sits around a conference table with their laptops and notepads open, standing by for a meeting.
It’s a sunny but chilly Sunday in April, and the group is participating in their monthly drill as volunteers in the Alaska State Defense Force. The men and women wear the Army Combat Uniform, a few in the older digital camouflage, but each one with a patch on their right shoulder – the Big Dipper on a dark blue field – indicating the state they call home.
The ASDF is the modern successor to the Alaska Territorial Guard which was established as the first line of the territory’s defense in 1942, during World War II. During the war, the ATG served as scouts – the military’s eyes and ears against Japanese invasion. Straight from local communities, the ATG was already seasoned to Alaska’s arctic conditions. For years afterwards, the ATG enlisted thousands of Alaskans, some as young as 12 and often recruited by one of the founders: Maj. Marvin “Muktuk” Marston.
The Mission – Prepare, Plan and Respond
In the 21st century, the ASDF mission has grown and adapted from its World War II scouting operations to be an effective component in the Alaska Organized Militia. The ASDF now characterizes its mission as an organized state military reserve force training “to prepare, plan, respond, mitigate and recover from natural and man-made disasters.”
Over the years, service members in the ASDF have volunteered in missions such as wildland fire response, infrastructure damage and safety assessment and COVID-19 exposure tracking. Whether it is directing traffic or transporting cots and blankets to shelters, the ASDF trains for events that involve a range of risks and demands.
That training can include multiagency exercises with the Alaska National Guard. Most recently members of the ASDF participated in Arctic Eagle-Patriot 2022, a cold weather training scenario involving National Guard units from 15 other states and emergency response civilian agencies.
Pvt. (AK) Stanley Radeski, an ASDF volunteer in AEP22, described how valuable the training opportunities are to the organization.
“If anything significant happens, Alaska needs to rely on Alaskans first,” said Radeski. “Alaskans are going to be the first responders. Despite the size of the state, the population is not that large, and we need to have group of people who are capable and willing to assist.”
During AEP22, ASDF service members conducted domain awareness patrols with mission partners, familiarizing themselves with the terrain and scouting for potential points of weakness in infrastructure. According to Radeski, this is knowledge he can apply to future operations with the ASDF and in his own town of Wasilla.
Building the Bench
All of the members are Alaskan residents, and all are volunteers but not everyone has a background in the United States military.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 (AK) Hillary Palmer worked for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough during the cyber attack in 2018 and said the incident motivated her to take a more active role in her state’s defense. Palmer has no history wearing the military uniform but now spends one weekend a month wearing green camouflage in the ASDF’s cyber security detachment.
“To join you do not have prior military experience,” said Palmer. “There’s a lot of really important technical expertise that exists outside the military, and it would be a shame not capitalize on that expertise.”
The all-volunteer organization capitalizes on that expertise by assigning personnel to its detachments according to their knowledge and qualifications. Members can serve in cyber security, engineering, communications or logistics and supply. Notably, the ASDF maintains a large and professionally diverse medical unit with surgeons, nurses, psychiatrists and chiropractors.
In Palmer’s experience, the ASDF has the flexibility to use everybody’s skillsets while accommodating different schedules.
“We are actively working on modernizing and professionalizing our mechanisms for training and activation,” Palmer explained. “I have a training plan and goals I’m working towards. If I wasn’t available today I could put in eight hours of training on my own time.”
Palmer and the cyber detachment train on a computer programming range, creating decoys and bait for cyber attacks to test their defenses.
Alaskans Serving Alaskans
With 19 detachments, the ASDF has members serving throughout the state. Local volunteers report for drill from as far as Little Diomede in the Bering Strait to Klawock, a city on the west coast of the Prince of Wales Island.
Brig. Gen. (AK) Simon Brown II, the ASDF commander, leads the volunteer militia from Wasilla, his home town of over 20 years. Already a noteworthy figure in his community, Brown is a retired Alaska State Trooper and retired Alaska Army Guardsman, and for the last two years, Brown has served on the Wasilla city council. Regarding his work now as a volunteer, he said he believes Alaska has a strong tradition of state pride prompting a desire to contribute to its defense.
“I’ve been in a uniform since 1973,” said Brown, from his office on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “Being part of the ASDF is part of who I am and I know that’s the same for all of us. We have never had a disaster where we were short of volunteers.”
Every member of the ASDF volunteers one weekend a month to drill, train and work in the interest of their community’s and state’s preparedness and defense.
“If you don’t expect any financial gain but are in it to help your community develop and grow,” said Radeski. “You will develop and grow and come out of the whole experience much better for it.”
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