Air Force and Alaska National Guard team up to bring Christmas cheer to St. George

ST. GEORGE, Alaska -- Instead of the sounds of jingle bells and hooves, the children of this remote Bering Sea island heard for the first time the powerful engines of a huge Air Force C-17 cargo jet ushering in their beloved Santa Claus the afternoon of Nov. 7.

Santa and Mrs. Claus were in St. George as part of Operation Santa Claus 2009. Now in its 53rd year, Operation Santa Claus is an outreach program for Alaska's joint force military and community supporters. Businesses and individuals around Alaska contribute toys, food and other supplies, which are then transported to rural villages during the holiday season by Alaska Air and Army National Guard units.

The St. George visit marked the first time a C-17 has been used in conjunction with operation Santa Claus. The new capability was made possible by the close working relationship the Alaska Air National Guard's Elmendorf-based 249th Airlift Squadron has developed with the Air Force's 517th Airlift Squadron. The 249th formed about two years ago and was formally activated in September. It is in a "classic association" with the 517th; that is, it supplies flight crews and maintenance personnel who work side-by-side with their active-duty counterparts.

Nearly the entire village of St. George turned out to meet the Alaska Guard members, airmen and local Anchorage volunteers who brought with them a holiday meal, lively music and a planeload of gifts. The cafeteria in the St. George School was filled with smiles, and lively chatter provided a counterpoint to seasonal melodies played by the Air Force Band of the Pacific.

"This is great," said Carol Randall, the school principal. "Because we're not on the road system, they don't get to see stuff like this ... The whole town was excited about this -- they couldn't wait for this to happen."

"This trip was very special. Using the C-17 with both an active duty Air Force and Alaska Air National Guard crew demonstrated the great relationship between our two organizations and I think it's a mark of the future of the association between the Air Force and the Air National Guard," remarked Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who traveled to St. George.

Operation Santa Claus began in 1956 as a benefit for a mission school in St. Mary's, a tiny Yukon River village in western Alaska. Since then it has expanded, reaching out to villages all over the state. Each year, a different set of villages is chosen as destinations; additional destinations this year include Koyuk, Nondalton, Gambell, Klukwan, Pedro Bay and Kasigluk.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Katkus, acting adjutant general for the Alaska National Guard, described the mission as a great training opportunity.

The mission allows Alaska's joint military forces to "take [our] tremendous military assets and apply them in such a positive manner to our communities, especially during the holiday season," he said.

"We get to bring a little bit of happiness with us," added Mrs. Claus.
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