January 20, 2018
BETHEL, Alaska- More than 80 Alaska Army National Guard Soldiers assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, conducted cold weather training operations and community engagement events in rural western Alaska. For B Co., which has it's headquarters in Wasilla, this was a large and significant consolidation at their detachment in Bethel. The weekend was also a momentous occasion for one of B Co.'s own Soldiers racing in the Kuskokwim 300 dogsled race here, January 18-20, 2018.
The Soldiers of B Co. arrived at the Bethel Armory on 18 January, greeted by blistering winds and below zero temperatures. They began cold weather training by setting up three arctic ten man tents, which they would sleep in later that evening. Soldiers practiced digging stakes into hard, frozen ground and utilized winter field gear to stay warm throughout the training.
“I don't know of any environment to better train small unit tactics and accountability than in an arctic environment, it really forces team leaders and squad leaders to pay attention to their Soldiers to make sure they're doing the right thing, if they aren't they can get frostbite really quickly. Weapons can freeze, their equipment can malfunction, they can go hungry and given the slippery and dangerous conditions out there they can get themselves hurt,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Roberts, battalion commander of the 297th Inf. “It really forces small unit leaders to focus on their tasks, focus on Soldier safety and tactical safety. Those skills are very translatable to any other environment whether it's hot or cold weather.”
After successfully staging the arctic tents, Soldiers trained on snow machines and tactical skis as means of transportation across the frozen tundra.
The National Guard's participation in the K-300 this year was highlighted by Staff Sgt. Thomas Carl, an infantryman with the 1-297th Inf. who represented the Alaskan National Guard in the race for the first time. “There's no feeling that's close to running the dogs. I love it,” said Carl. “The most important thing for me, it to start and finish with all the dogs I came with, and to avoid any injuries.”
“It's an awesome way to get visibility for the Guard in the local community,” said Capt. Vance Johnson, Commander of B Co. 297th Inf. “It's great to see one of our guys compete.”
About a dozen Soldiers from the 297th Inf. loaded their gear into two small unit support vehicles and converged on the Kuskokwim river Friday morning for the four hour drive to the Tuluksak checkpoint. During the winter months in Western Alaska the rivers are used as a road system, the ice so thick a 1 ½ ton tracked military vehicle with personnel is easily handled.
At the Bethel checkpoint, Soldiers picked smooth ice into a more jagged terrain to make it easier to walk on for the mushers. They also layered straw over the ice and brought hot water to revitalize the dogs and give them a place to rest.
“It's always great to have some able bodies willing to help us out,” said Jen Peeks, a Bethel resident who works for the Alaskan fish and game department, who volunteered to help run the checkpoint. “We're so happy to have these guys here.”
Late Friday night with the checkpoints manned and the teams readied, 18 dog sleds teams crossed the starting line in groups of two with two minute intervals starting the 2018 K-300, starting in the number 17 position was the Alaska Guardsman, starting the biggest dog race of his life thus far.
“We are a very visible presence to the community so the community gets to see Soldiers training in and around the town and that raises public awareness of what the Guard does,” said Roberts. “It helps with recruiting as well.”