Alaska National Guard: Better Understanding Their Sacrifice
by Jason Forrester Veterans For America, Thu Oct 02, 2008 at 08:11:27 AM EDT
National Guard units struggle nationwide, but the post-deployment challenges facing the Alaska National Guard are more daunting and widespread than any other I've seen as a Director of Veterans for America's National Guard Program.
As we have done in more than 12 other states, members of Veterans for America's National Guard Program recently completed an assessment of the needs of the Alaska National Guard, culminating with a week-long trip to Alaska, visiting a cross-section of the state to assess the needs of the Alaska National Guard. Despite the dedicated and relentless work many in Alaska, VFA's findings indicate that the post-deployment needs of Alaska National Guard members and their families remain largely unmet.
The greatest challenge facing Alaska National Guard members is access to care. Guard members living in urban centers like Anchorage and Juneau have limited access to Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare and Tricare (i.e., Department of Defense-sponsored military health care). When Guard members are deployed, their families are forced to switch to a very limited Tricare network, and often lose their health care.
The bigger challenge is that over one-quarter of Alaska Guard members live in rural areas, more than 60 miles from the nearest VA clinic or facility, and many live in such remote areas that their families do not have access to providers during deployment. For Guard members living in remote towns, it can cost over $1,500 to travel to Anchorage for appointments. Vets have to fork over this money up front, and then get paid back by the VA. And if they are late for their appointment because of the challenges of travel in Alaska they often have to reschedule their appointment for days, if not weeks, later.
What happens to the families when Guard soldiers deploy? Food hardships are not uncommon, as food is incredibly expensive in the remote villages in Alaska; for instance, in these communities milk costs $10 for a half gallon and fuel costs even more. VFA was told that the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage has seen an increase of 400% in the military families relying on their services.
Deployments also cause difficulties in unique Alaskan ways: in a many remote towns, every able-bodied male of the community plays an integral role in hunting to fill freezers with game. When they're gone, there are fewer people to provide for the family. In addition, many of the industries in Alaska are seasonal. Deployments during the work season cause citizen Soldiers to lose their jobs and return home unemployed.
The Alaska National Guard was deployed to war without the programs and systems in place to care adequately for them when they returned. Another 140 aviators from the Alaska Army Guard are set to mobilize in a few months. VFA believes that we must not continue to deploy the Alaska National Guard until we are adequately care for them and their families.
Caring for our National Guard can no longer be an afterthought in our country.