by 1st Lt. Balinda O’Neal
On the shores of the Kuskokwim River, 400 miles west of Anchorage, a Bethel couple cuts strips of salmon before carrying them to their smokehouse as youth spectators eagerly watch and learn about local subsistence life.
The youth, who come from Anchorage, Fairbanks and the lower 48 states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, are part of the Alaska National Guard’s Warrior and Family Services Child and Youth Program. Each year Sgt.1st Class Joseph Sallaffie and his wife, Rachel, host part of the summer cultural event at their subsistence fish camp.
“The Sallaffies were instrumental to not just the success of the program but their presence has been an enormous help to families and Guardsmen serving in the region,” said Octavia Thompson, Warrior and Family Services director, as she recalls the Sallaffies’ support of the program for the past six years during a retirement ceremony for Joseph at the National Guard Armory in Bethel, Aug. 19, 2022.
While a formal retirement ceremony honors a service member for a career of faithful and honorable service, this event recognized the couple that gave more than four decades of service to our state and nation.
Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Sallaffie followed in his older brother’s footsteps by enlisting as a cavalry scout in the U.S. Army in 1980. After fulfilling his three-year contract, he returned home to Bethel where he met his wife and started a family that would eventually include four children.
He began his Alaska Army Guard career in 1989 serving in Bethel as an infantryman, assisting with military funeral honors and recruiting. He separated from the service in 1996 and moved to the nearby village of Tuluksak, where Rachel was born and raised.
In 2008, Joseph found the familiar calling of service and once again enlisted in the AKARNG. He moved his family back to Bethel allowing him to pursue retirement and seek camaraderie with his brothers and sisters in arms.
Rachel followed the family tradition of service and became a family assistance specialist with Warrior and Family Services from 2013 to 2016. In 2017, she began volunteering as the Family Readiness Group leader for Bravo Company, 297th Infantry Battalion. During this time, she organized family-oriented events, engaged with community services and supported families experiencing crisis in the remote community of Bethel and surrounding villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area of western Alaska.
“She is the heart of the Bethel armory, and her dedication to support the unit’s mission ensured that Guardsmen and their families were cared for,” said Thompson. “Rachel is affectionately known as the backbone and “mother” of the Alaska National Guard Armory in Bethel.”
Over the years, the Sallaffies assisted with setting up shelters for fire evacuees, hosting holiday events and providing home-cooked meals to Soldiers training at the armory.
“I cook for them so they won’t get homesick,” said Rachel, who prefers the Guardsmen stay away from MRE’s when she can bring a homemade meal. “I love taking care of Soldiers and working with kids.”
Following the ceremony, the attendees shared memorable stories over a spread of home-cooked food including traditional Yup’ik delicacies of muktuk and akutaq. Guardsmen, friends and family talked about Joseph rescuing mushers by snow machine, while the AKARNG’s infantry battalion supported the Kuskokwim-300 sled dog race, operating his boat filled with energetic youth program participants on the flowing Kuskokwim and other highlights over the decades.
While Joseph officially hung up his uniform July 31, he and Rachel have no plans of slowing down. Joseph immediately started working for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation as a traveling maintenance technician, and Rachel works for the YKHC’s Behavioral Health as a suicide prevention consultant and plans on continuing with her FRG duties.
“Joseph is getting out, but we really aren’t going anywhere,” said Rachel. “We plan on opening our fish camp to youth in the summers and continuing to volunteer as long as we are able.”
Joseph ended his farewell speech at his retirement ceremony by thanking the warriors he served with and the families who supported him along the way with a familiar Yup’ik appreciation.
“I want to mention my gratitude and I am humbled by this ceremony,” said Joseph, as he reflected on his almost 23 years in uniform. “Quyana.”
1st Lt. Balinda O’Neal writes from the Alaska National Guard Public Affairs office on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.