Alaska National Guard delivers holiday gifts to remote villages for 66th year

by Spc. Grace Nechanicky

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – Alaska Army National Guard Sgt. Randell Andrew, an armory attendant in Bethel assigned to B Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, forklifts pallets of gifts from an HC-130J Combat King II aircraft Dec. 2, 2021, at Bethel, Alaska, before they are loaded onto an UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter for further delivery to Chevak as part of Operation Santa Claus 2021. Op Santa is an Alaska National Guard annual community outreach program that provides gifts, books, school supplies and stocking stuffers to children in rural Alaskan communities. This year marks the 66th year of the program, which began in 1956 after the village of St. Mary’s experienced a year of hardship and the Alaska Air National Guard flew in gifts and supplies donated by the local community. The Alaska National Guard was able to continue the tradition this year and safely provide gifts despite COVID-19. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Dana Rosso/Released).

The Alaska National Guard continued with the tradition of Operation Santa Claus again this year, spreading holiday joy to remote Alaskan villages by delivering gifts to children of two communities. Gifts were delivered to Buckland Dec. 14, while a flight to Chevak was delayed several times due to inclement weather. Efforts to deliver Santa’s packages to the small community will resume shortly after the holidays.

The Alaska National Guard, in partnership with the Salvation Army, took the same necessary COVID-19 precautions to ensure safety as last year, but remained committed to sharing in the holiday spirit with the small communities which included nearly 650 children total. Alaska National Guard Soldiers and Airmen helped pack, load, transfer and unload the cargo.

“Operation Santa has been going for 66 years,” said Air National Guard Maj. Chelsea Aspelund, the 176th Wing chief of public affairs. “It started in 1956 in St. Mary’s after the Alaska National Guard responded to a request for assistance following extreme flooding and draught that impacted subsistence fishing and hunting in the community.”

Despite the hardships and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic during last year’s Op Santa season, the mission was able to safely continue after a few mitigation procedures, such as limiting contact and minimizing the number of personnel involved in the mission.

“It’s important for Operation Santa to continue because this is an opportunity for the Alaska National Guard to reach into rural Alaska and really demonstrate our ability to be there to support the communities,” said Aspelund.

Villages chosen to participate in Op Santa are selected based off of several factors, including hardships that the community has faced, in a remote or isolated location, and whether the community has requested support.

“It’s kind of hard for [the villages] to enjoy a Christmas like it used to be with all that’s going on,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Sallaffie, facility attendant at Bethel’s National Guard armory. “It makes a difference.”

The gifts in this year’s holiday delivery totaled 4,420 pounds of backpacks, books, school supplies, snacks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and gifts categorized by age.

Pallets of boxes were loaded onto an HC-130J Combat King II aircraft here, and transported to Bethel and Nome Dec. 2 where they were staged for further delivery to the two remote villages. The fixed-wing aircraft is used first because of its capability to carry more cargo faster, which allows the transport to multiple locations in one day-trip. The gifts are then transported from the staging locations to the villages via helicopters because they can land in the villages in challenging winter conditions.

Buckland received their gifts after they were transported 139 miles northeast from Nome on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter Dec. 14. A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is staged to fly the gifts 118 miles northwest of Bethel to the village of Chevak once weather permits.

The Alaska National Guard and Salvation Army continue to maintain a strong commitment to Operation Santa Claus, hoping to share neighborly joy with rural communities in Alaska.

“[Op Santa] is an important community engagement for the Alaska National Guard to help maintain and build trust and partnership with others throughout the state,” said Aspelund.

“It means a whole lot [to the children],” said Sallaffie. “Bringing presents out to the villages in these tough times, it’s pretty awesome.”

Spc. Grace Nechanicky writes fromJoint Force Headquarters Public Affairs at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

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