by 1st Lt. Balinda O’Neal
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter filled with community volunteers and holiday gifts for children in the northwest community of Scammon Bay touched down on the south bank of the frozen Kun River, one mile from the Bering Sea, Nov. 16.
With more than a dozen volunteers on board, two Alaska Army National Guardsmen, based out of Bethel and at very different points in their career, came together to support Operation Santa Claus. Pfc. Jared Alirkar, a transportation management coordinator with the 49th Personnel Detachment (Theater Gateway), enlisted one year ago, while Staff Sgt. Eddie Jones, an AKARNG recruiter, with the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, has spent more than two decades in its ranks.
Known as the hub of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, Bethel is 146 miles southeast of Scammon Bay and is where Jones, Alirkar, and their families call home.
“As the only full-time recruiter in the YK Delta, I am the community contact for the region and responsible for seeking strong candidates to fill important positions in the Alaska Army National Guard,” said Jones, who is serving an almost three-year rotation recruiting for an area covering almost 50,000 square miles in southwest Alaska, roughly the size of North Carolina.
“I had a great predecessor, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Wilbanks, who showed me the ins and outs of the position here,” said Jones. “After six years of working in the Bethel community and across the region, he has left some pretty big shoes to fill, and I am definitely up for the challenge.”
While traveling to remote Alaskan villages across Western Alaska isn’t new to Jones, this is his first year participating in Operation Santa Claus – an opportunity that comes with his new position.
From Kotlik all the way down to Goodnews Bay, Jones will find himself traveling to outlying areas twice a month by commercial plane, Black Hawk helicopter or even driving on the network of frozen rivers that turn into an ice highway connecting western Alaskan villages in the winter.
Enlisting as an infantryman in October 2000, Jones followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps of U.S. Army service. Over the past two decades, he has responded to a handful of domestic operations, deployed to Iraq in 2006-2007, and served two tours in Afghanistan in 2005-2006 and 2011-2012. Nearing retirement, Jones felt Bethel was a good fit for his career and family.
“I wanted this position to find quality Soldiers that can fill the void when I decide to retire or can no longer do this job,” said Jones, recognizing that he is surrounded by people in the region who thrive in extreme weather and harsh lands and have a lengthy history of military service.
One of these experts, born and raised in Bethel, is Alirkar, who like Jones, also followed in his family’s footsteps and continued on the tradition of family military service. His father, and maternal grandfather and uncle served in the National Guard.
Alirkar said during the mission he was able to reconnect with veterans who served in the military with his father. For many of them, this was the first time they were able to see Alirkar in uniform, having recently completed advanced individual training in Virginia, and returning home to Alaska in September.
During the mission to Scammon Bay, both assisted alongside more than a dozen Alaska National Guard, Salvation Army and community volunteers moving boxes filled with 1,780 pounds of gifts, backpacks, hygiene supplies, and books for 325 children. When the youngsters weren’t meeting Santa and Mrs. Claus or enjoying made-to-order ice cream sundaes, topped with chocolate or caramel sauce, sprinkles, crushed peanuts and cherries, they were circled on the floor surrounding Guardsmen inquiring about their uniforms and military jobs.
“I had a blast helping and watching the kids light up when they saw Mr. and Mrs. Claus,” said Jones, who said the mission was just as rewarding to the Guardsmen who volunteered as it was to the children. “I’m so thankful I am in a position to give back to the communities in the region and to my family and battalion for supporting me throughout this transition to my new job.”
Since 1956, the Alaska National Guard has supported Operation Santa Claus through partnerships with local community organizations and volunteers in order to spread joy and good tidings to small, remote communities throughout Alaska. In the 67th year of the program, Operation Santa Claus will travel to Minto and Nuiqsut later this holiday season.
For this operation, Santa traded in his sleigh for rides on a 176th Wing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Bethel and then swapped over to a UH and HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to complete the mission to Scammon Bay.
While Alirkar is still experiencing many firsts, like flying in a Black Hawk helicopter and preparing for an anticipated deployment in 2024, Jones is starting one of his final assignments for a career that has spanned decades. For the day, Soldiers from two different eras worked alongside each other to help fulfill an Alaska National Guard annual tradition.
1st Lt. Balinda O’Neal writes from the Alaska National Guard Public Affairs at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.