Alaska National Guard assists Commissary in serving rural Alaska

  • Published
  • By David Bedard and 1st Lt. Balinda Dresel
  • Alaska National Guard Public Affairs

Retired Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Harry Alexi pushed a gray industrial-grade platform shopping cart at the Bethel Alaska Army National Guard Aviation Facility. He needed the cart’s capacity to load up with bags of flour, boxes of cereal, cases of mac and cheese – all at prices a fraction of what could be purchased locally.

The discounts were possible because the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), at the request of the Alaska National Guard, provided discounted groceries to eligible military- and Department of Defense-affiliated patrons during a one-day event Aug. 7 in the remote village hub of Bethel. Several days prior to the event, tons of high-demand goods were transported via a C-17 Globemaster III of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 144th Airlift Squadron from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to the small community on the coast of Western Alaska along the Kuskokwim River.

Commissary grocery shopping is an earned benefit that is accessible to those near or able to drive to a military installation. Alaska is one-fifth the size of the continental U.S., and travel to most village communities is not accessible via road travel. Alaskan retirees, for example, in these remote locations are not able to readily use their Commissary shopping benefits, and this is a challenge DeCA and the Alaska National Guard are working to address.

Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, initiated the Commissary event as a way to show current and former service members in rural Alaska communities that the Guard wants to help them access their earned benefits.

“This has absolutely been a group effort, and we are very excited that we were able to successfully accomplish this mission,” Saxe said. “The purpose really is to be able to provide discounted groceries to eligible military patrons. People, from recruitment through retirement years, are our greatest resource and we need to show them through our actions that we value and appreciate them.”

Command Chief Master Sgt. Winfield Hinkley, Alaska National Guard senior enlisted leader reinforced the importance of the event.

“Due to the uniqueness and geographical isolation in Alaska, it can be challenging for eligible personnel to get access to the benefits that they have earned through service to their country,” he said. “We are proud to partner with DeCA to help realize their goal of providing Commissary benefits to all eligible patrons.”

Octavia Thompson, the Alaska National Guard’s Warrior and Family Services program director, said the effort was the continuation and reestablishment of DeCA and Alaska National Guard outreach to rural Alaska.

“It’s probably been a good 10 years since we have been able to come out to Bethel to provide this resource to our eligible patrons,” she said. “Considering the last year that we’ve had, this has been a great way to support the community because a lot of our eligible patrons haven’t been able to come into Anchorage to go shopping at Elmendorf or even at Fort Wainwright up in Fairbanks.”

On Aug. 2, Staff Sgt. Merick Ahlberg, 144th AS loadmaster, was responsible for loading the dozens of pallets of groceries and supplies into the cavernous cargo hold of the C-17 and working with material-handling equipment on the Bethel end to disgorge the freight.

Hinkley said the operation was similar to what could happen if the National Guard had to assist state and local agencies during an emergency.

“There is a very real possibility that during a disaster we could be called upon to provide food to a local community,” he said. “This training mission is two-fold as it affords us the opportunity to demonstrate our capabilities while supporting the local community.”

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health Programs; State of Alaska’s Office of Veterans Affairs; USO Alaska; Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve; and Alaska National Guard’s Warrior and Family Services and Retirement Services, and volunteers from the Alaska State Defense Force offered staff on site to support and provide information for attendees.

Dwight Brown, store director of the Anchorage Area Commissary, travelled to Bethel with a squad of Commissary employees to serve eligible customers. As a member of the small team responsible for the logistically complex sale, Brown leveraged his years of retail experience, personally fulfilling roles from stock clerk to customer-service representative throughout the operation.

“Getting the benefit to remote locations, that means the world to me,” he said. “Ultimately, I feel proud. I think everything is falling in line, and now I just want to see the smiles on customers’ faces.”

Once the doors of the aviation facility opened, residents poured in, flashing veterans IDs or clutching DD 214 separation paperwork to prove eligibility.

As a hub city, Bethel is the logistics and retail focal point for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a region that, at 75,000 square miles, is larger than the Mississippi River Delta. There are no highways connecting Bethel to the rest of Alaska, so contact with the outside world is by air, while contact with the outlying villages is by snowmachine in the winter and river boats in the summer.

After the initial surge of customers hailing primarily from Bethel and immediate outlying areas made their early morning purchases, customers streamed in from other villages using boats to traverse the veins of the YK Delta’s smaller rivers before fording the Kuskokwim to make their way to Bethel.

Hinkley said the successful operation demonstrated the Alaska National Guard’s commitment to the state’s military community.

“This mission is another way to demonstrate our commitment to take care of our members, families and retirees from recruitment through retirement,” he said.