JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, AK -- Auntie Mary Nicoli Elementary School teacher Byron Fischer unfolded a large collage in his third grade classroom, revealing a U.S. flag and a flanking Alaska flag festooned with the faces of Aniak military veterans.
Some photos showed veterans contemporary to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others were grainy black-and-white images of Alaska Territorial Guard scouts who served, unpaid and unrecognized until recently, during World War II.
Student Tilly Morgan leapt from her desk and gleefully pointed out soldier Wayne Morgan II wearing a modern Operational Camouflage Pattern uniform. Pictures of Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen represented decades of service in the state, the nation and abroad during conflict and peace.
The school presentation was part of an Alaska National Guard visit to Aniak May 2-3, hosted by the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 federally recognized tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Lt. Col. Hannah Sims, Alaska National Guard Rural Operations military liaison, said the genesis for the partnership arose from Typhoon Merbok, which devastated much of Western Alaska and drove the response of more than 170 members of the Alaska Organized Militia.
“During Merbok response operations, the Association of Village Council Presidents saw the underscored value of having National Guard members in their communities and how local Guard members’ expertise heightens emergency operations response,” Sims said. “Shortly after, AVCP very generously offered an opportunity for the Alaska National Guard to partner with the tribal consortium specifically to recruit members in communities along the Y-K Delta into the Alaska National Guard through their tribal job centers.”
The Y-K Delta is a region located in Western Alaska defined by its two major river arteries that feeds tributary rivers, sloughs and creeks, which provide lifelines in terms of wild fish and game as well as riverine shipping. The only way to get to Aniak is by plane or boat in the summer and by plane or snowmachine in the winter.
On the morning of May 2, five Alaska National Guardsmen boarded an Army National Guard C-12 Huron transport for the 90-minute flight from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Aniak, a town of 500 citizens situated on the Kuskokwim River. A group of elementary school students carrying welcoming signs greeted the Guardsmen planeside.
In addition to their recruiting mission, the team also fulfilled Alaska state adjutant general Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe’s goal of deepening relationships with rural civic leaders and communities.
Central to the effort were Alaska Army National Guard recruiter Master Sgt. JR Lomboy, Alaska Air National Guard recruiter Master Sgt. Christopher Fronapfel, and 1st Lt. Laurel Foster, 176th Force Support Squadron training officer, who is a Cu’pik Alaska Native from Bethel.
The backdrop for the visit was the 2023 Kuspuk School District Academic Decathlon, which attracted students from villages surrounding the hub community of Aniak. Students teemed the halls of the Aniak Junior/Senior High School competing in mathematics, science, speech, social studies, geography, engineering and athletics.
Foster shared her story with dozens of high school students. She was born in Bethel and grew up practicing Cu’pik subsistence traditions like berry picking and drying salmon. Her father worked in administration for a regional chain store, so she travelled throughout the Y-K Delta before her family moved to Anchorage.
Foster said growing up multi-racial with a white father and a Cu’pik mother proved challenging. She said she wasn’t always able to participate in Native traditions because she was half white, and then she struggled in Anchorage because of her rural Alaska upbringing.
“It was very difficult for me to transition from living in a village and then going into a city where doing what I do in my culture, like fishing and berry picking, was something to be made fun of,” Foster recalled. “So, what did I do? I joined Junior ROTC. It was my first sense of belonging.”
Foster attended Navy JROTC at Service High School where she led the competitive drill team that won state. Out of her newfound sense of inclusion, Foster decided to join the Navy after graduation. She became pregnant with her first of two children, which delayed her ambitions until she could join the Alaska Air National Guard at the age of 25 as a Security Forces specialist. After promotion to the enlisted rank of master sergeant, Foster commissioned as a lieutenant.
Foster acknowledged there are few Alaska Natives in the Alaska Air National Guard and even fewer officers, but she encouraged students to continue Aniak’s tradition of service in the Alaska National Guard.
“There aren’t very many Alaska Native people or Alaska Native females who are commissioned officers in the Guard, and I wanted to be the example to let all of you know that this is an opportunity that is available to you,” she said. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something.”