The National Guard doesn’t have as big a presence in Southeast Alaska as it used to. A group of local former National Guardsmen wants to gauge public interest in changing that.
A town hall is slated this week for the Juneau Arts and Culture Center to discuss increasing the number of full-time National Guard staff in Southeast. There’s no official proposal to increase guard staff. The group wants to hear first from community members before pursuing any action.
Southeast now has just 40 full-time guard members. That number was once as high as 600, said former Southeast lieutenant Charlie Smith in an interview with the Empire. The town hall meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 5-7 p.m.
“We want to get public input into what types of units they’d like to have,” Smith said.
Local retired Guardsman Fred Thorsteinson has 30 years experience with the Alaska National Guard — 20 as a full-time member and 10 in part-time service. He explained that acting as a military reserve is just one of the guard’s three main charges. They also function as a community service organization and disaster responders.
The guard built many of Juneau’s playgrounds and responded to the Alaska Airlines Flight 1866 disaster that killed 111 people in 1971. Thorsteinson was part of the response team to the crash. The guard and the FBI processed human remains from the 1971 crash at the JACC, which was then the National Guard Armory.
In 1984, Thorsteinson responded to a winter storm disaster in Tenakee Springs.
“The town was devastated and we went in there and helped with the removal of debris and hauling supplies to the community. The guard statewide has responded to the earthquakes, flooding in Fairbanks. … These are all things where you have the opportunity to be a vital asset to the community,” he said.
In the 1990s, the Juneau unit of the National Guard was mobilized to Iraq and Kuwait to aid in the Iraq War. Membership then was higher, Thorsteinson said, but has since declined.
“Over the years, the membership kind of dwindled. Then in the 80s, it kind of was built up again, there was all this support injected into the system,” he explained.
The guard mishandled a series of sexual assaults in 2009, which led to the resignation of Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Katkus. This hurt the guard’s reputation, Thorsteinson said, and may have decreased interest in joining.
But Thorsteinson said Juneau — and Southeast — could benefit from increased National Guard presence. That’s just his opinion, he said, and he wants to hear from the rest of the community. Support from the community would be key to any increase in staff.
“There’s a need for a lot more, there’s a need for more full-time support for Southeast, here,” Thorsteinson said.