Alaska Guard delivers gifts to remote villages for 66th year

  • Published
  • By Spc. Grace Nechanicky,
  • Alaska National Guard Public Affairs

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – The Alaska National Guard conducted Operation Santa Claus again this year, delivering gifts to children in remote Alaskan villages.

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 almost 650 children. 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 drought that impacted subsistence fishing and hunting in the community.”

Despite the hardships and uncertainty of the pandemic during last year’s Op Santa season, the mission continued with a few mitigation procedures, such as limiting contact and minimizing the number of people involved.

“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.

The remote villages chosen to participate in Op Santa are selected based on several factors, including hardships the community has faced.

“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.”

This year’s holiday delivery included 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 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, transported Dec. 2 to Bethel and Nome and staged for further delivery by helicopters to the two remote villages. The fixed-wing aircraft is used first because of its capability to carry more cargo faster. 

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

The Alaska National Guard and Salvation Army are committed to Operation Santa Claus “to help maintain and build trust and partnership with others throughout the state,” Aspelund said.

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