Eskimo Troops Brace for Iraq

Times Staff Writer

For nearly 50 years during the Cold War, being in Alaska's National Guard meant a potential front-line deployment -- right at home. "Our greatest adversary was our next-door neighbor," said Guard Maj. Mike Haller. Guard units around the state trained regularly for a Soviet invasion.

The Soviets never did invade, and units in the far western reaches of the Alaskan bush were never activated.

But now, for the first time since World War II, Guard reserve troops in tiny Yupik Eskimo villages such as Kongiganak are being called up, and this time they are being sent halfway around the world -- to Iraq.

The Iraq deployment in western Alaska comes at an especially poignant time: Late spring is known as "breakup" in the Alaskan bush, when the ever-lengthening days finally melt the snow and ice that have blanketed the tundra for more than half the year and kept it eerily quiet.

But as the Yupik men at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River ready themselves for the hunting, fishing and seal-catching that still provide a significant component of people's diets here, they find themselves preparing for a breakup of an almost unfathomably different sort.

In this village of 386 people, six men have been notified to report for duty next month. Though all the men knew they could be called when they signed up years ago for Guard duty -- an important source of cash here -- several said they were struggling to adjust to the reality.

"When I signed up, I never thought I would go to war; I mean, you never really think of Alaska being at war with anybody," said Harold Azean, 23, a Guard specialist.

Ben Lupie, 30, a Kongiganak carpenter who is also going to Iraq, said he was optimistic that all the men would come back alive.

"Us being a hunting people, I think it gives us an advantage," he said, going into an impressive series of mimes: the light prancing of a caribou, the ripple of a fish just below the surface of a river, even the flapping wings of the ducks, cranes and geese that are just arriving on spring migration.

"We notice the tiniest motions," Lupie said. "So I think we'll be aware if something suspicious is up, and we'll know how to react."

The call to Kongiganak comes as the National Guard's involvement in Iraq is set to wind down -- there are now 23,000 Guard troops there, and the Pentagon announced recently that it was hoping to phase out Iraq rotations of the National Guard, perhaps as early as 2007. The call-up of the Kongiganak men has not been affected by the recent news; once a unit is activated, it has to be on duty for at least a year, with two weeks' leave time for each person.

In World War II, Alaskan Guard troops served in both the European and Asian theaters, and some units were stationed along the Aleutian Islands in anticipation of an attack by Japan. For decades after the war, Alaskan Guard units avoided being called up to other locations because U.S.-Soviet tensions were the dominant geopolitical factor: They were perfectly positioned right where they were.

"During the Cold War years, our National Guard was considered forward-deployed," said Haller, the Guard spokesman. "We were the tripwire."

Since then, Guard units here have avoided duty in places such as Kosovo, or the Middle East in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, because they were the most distantly located and expensive to activate. Those factors have played into the Alaskan units' late entry into Iraq, when Guard units from densely populated Eastern states have seen multiple tours. But today, with all branches of the reserve stretched to the limit by the war in Iraq, it has at last become bush Alaska's turn.

Of the 670 soldiers called up in Alaska, 600 are due to go to Iraq and 70 to Afghanistan, Haller said. They are to ship out in early July and spend about three months training, with exercises intended to "increase unit cohesion" and acclimate them to hot weather, at Camp Shelby, Miss.

"I'm trying to get my head around this, that we are going from one of the coldest places on Earth to one of the hottest," said Eric Phillip, 39, who joined the National Guard in 1985 and had planned to retire from it this year -- a plan that he is obligated to shelve now. "I get hot just thinking about it."

Phillip added, "I don't even know how to explain it to my boys." He has two sons, Aatem, 6, and Tuyan, who will turn 2 this month. "I just say, 'I'm going way far away to help little kids like you be able to go to school just like you do.' "

Kongiganak and other bush villages are hardly a hotbed of support for the war in Iraq. When prodded, many say they think the war has made the world less safe, not more.

But that doesn't mean they are protesting the call-up either.

"The Yupik are a 'don't-go-against-the-flow' people. You learn how to move with the current of the river or you don't survive," said Phillip's wife, Karen, 35, a schoolteacher. "So nobody is actually speaking out against the war. It's like speaking out against the weather."

Previous National Guard call-ups have drawn from Alaska's cities and towns served by a road system stretching from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

The call-up in the marshy delta country to the west reaches villages so remote that there are only two ways to get here most of the year -- by airplane or snowmobile -- and a third from May to September, or perhaps October in a warm year with a late freeze-up: the river.

So in places with Eskimo names such as Kongiganak, Kwigillingok and Manokotak, elder leaders and wives find themselves planning how to carry on without strong young men who serve as vital providers of food.

Some people here say the land and waters around them provide 80% of their food: meat from migrating caribou as well as seals and walruses; fish, including the thousands of pike hanging out to dry and cure on clotheslines in bright sunshine; and the brief riot of late-summer vegetation, including Arctic berries and wild plants such as celery and spinach.

There are no cars or trucks at all in Kongiganak, but people here are hardly opposed to modern ways. They get around on snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles and live in low-slung homes with corrugated steel roofs, some painted a bright red, green or blue.

They watch CNN and Fox News, via satellite television, though sometimes the volume is turned off so they can listen instead to the village CB radio network that appears to keep everyone abreast of local news.

At Eric Phillip's parents' home on a recent day, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News was talking noiselessly above a screen banner that said "Immigration Debate," while a Yupik elder announced on the radio that two village men had just brought in a seal and walrus catch, and that people were welcome to come by and take a share of the meat.

The sky stayed light until nearly 11:30 p.m., and children played basketball at the Yupik K-12 school, a large building with red trim that is the only place in Kongiganak, other than the tribal council office, with running water. (Residents go to the council quarters to do their laundry and take showers.)

Phillip said he had never lived away from Kongiganak, unless you count the three months he once spent in a crab boat on the icy Bering Sea.

"It's certainly going to be different," Phillip said. "It's my big chance to see a whole different part of the world, is the way I try to look at it."

But Karen, his wife, said she found it very hard to reconcile herself to the idea. "I don't want him to go, of course," she said. "A lot of the wives feel that way. A lot of them are wondering, 'Why do you listen to the Army? Why don't you listen to me?' "

Eric Phillip and his brother, Tommy Jr., who is helping build a water pipeline to serve the village, said that they were deeply conflicted about going but that they knew they had made a binding commitment.

"We all raised our right hands and told the Army we were capable of serving the country if called," Eric Phillip said over a dinner one night of fresh-caught caribou and dried, salted pike. "I can't just walk off this deal like you can walk off a job. It doesn't work that way."

For Karen Phillip, the hardest moment was during a family preparation meeting in April, when a National Guard sergeant asked her and her husband to measure the heights of their two children and mark them with a pencil against a wall. Then they had to guess how much higher the lines would be when Eric came back.

"I think it's the military way of getting you to try to adjust to the reality of being away," Karen Phillip said. "I guess that's what it is. But when I had to think about it in those terms, I really lost it."

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