Nome now has a full-time Guardsman working at the local armory following more than a decade without the National Guard’s presence in Western Alaska.
Staff Sergeant Chris Thomas is a recruiter with the Alaska Army National Guard, which covers the Nome area, Kotzebue, and the Northwest Arctic Borough. Thomas explains why he is here to reinvigorate the National Guard presence in Nome.
“We don’t know where war is going in the future, we don’t know where conflict is going in the future, and there’s rumor of things heating up over in Siberia, so we have to have our response to that. And you know, nobody knows how to survive in the Arctic like people who live in the Arctic.”
Right now, Thomas’s primary focus is to establish himself in Nome and then plan events in Kotzebue. He expects it to be a slow transition, as he just arrived with his family last month. But, the goal for Thomas is to have five new recruits by the end of September.
According to Thomas and the history of the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), Western Alaska is where the Guard was born. Brigadier General Lee Knowles, commander of the Alaska National Guard, agrees with Thomas but also recognizes that the days heavily featuring the ATG are in the past.
“The ATG really was the seed organization for the Alaska Army National Guard, so Guard members were actually paid for their services and what-not during drills. That timeframe and mission requirements during the Cold War were vastly different than what our military requirements are now.”
According to Knowles, there are currently 12 active National Guard facilities in rural areas that allow the Guard to have a presence outside of Anchorage, but not in as many places as before.
“Our plan is to try to centrally locate in areas like Kotzebue, Nome, and Bethel, where we can support a population of 12 to 15 drilling soldiers in each of those locations and give them the opportunity to grow locally, support activities locally, but also come into Anchorage when required.”
According to Knowles, the Guard has 60 armories in rural Alaska that have been slated to be handed over to other organizations or entities and be repurposed for non-military uses. Of those divested facilities, 15 have completed the process, while 20 more are currently still in progress.
As further evidence that the Alaska National Guard is moving forward in a different direction, Thomas says he hopes to remove the bitter taste in some people’s mouths from past wrongs.
“I’ve talked with and spoken with some of the elders around here, and I’ve heard a lot of the past injustices, a lot of hurts at the hand of the National Guard, and I can’t wait to do my best to, not necessarily erase that from people’s memories, but help them understand that’s not how things are done anymore. That was wrong, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t honoring their service, and that’s what I intend to do out here.”
So far, B.G. Knowles says the Guard has been well received in the Yukon Delta, and they are also excited to be back in Nome.
Despite what may come in the changing economic climate across the state, Knowles and Thomas both say the Alaska National Guard is here to stay in Western Alaska.
Image at top: Staff Sergeant Chris Thomas outside the Alaska National Guard Armory in Nome, July 2019. Photo: JoJo Phillips, KNOM.