Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska

Story and photos by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

email: david.altom@us.army.mil

October 6, 2010

Part one of a three part series

The scenario is familiar.  Getting up at oh-dark-early, the gathering together of Soldiers and gear on a quiet airfield. The smell of aviation fuel and the call of “Load up, gentlemen.”  The hurry up and wait.  The long flight.  And finally, in country.

Six Kentucky Citizen-Soldiers, all wounded warriors, offload their gear from their ride, an Air National Guard C-17.  They smile and laugh.  They have plenty of reason to be happy.  This time their destination is not the streets of Baghdad or some lonely outpost in Afghanistan.  This time it’s the wilderness of Alaska.  Their assignment: a few days of adventure, fun, and – most importantly – comradeship.

A joint effort between the Kentucky National Guard and dozens of generous individuals, Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska has a single focus – take a small group of battered war veterans who put their lives on the line for their fellow Soldiers and their nation, remove them from their daily grind and give them a chance to rejuvenate, recreate and reconnect.

And what better backdrop than the last great American frontier?

Hurry up and wait: Master Sgt. Brett Hightower enjoys the spacious accommodations of a Mississippi Air National Guard C-17 en route to a week of healing and adventure. Hightower was one of six injured Kentucky Army National Guard Soldiers who took part in Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Kentucky Army National Guard Sgt. First Class Chuck Reed came up with the idea for the trip.  A retired Kentucky State Trooper and a member of the Guard for 37 years, Reed is a frequent visitor to the 49th state and a part-time employee at the Salmon Catcher Lodge where the troops will stay during their visit.

“I thought, what a great way, if we could work out a trip for some of our wounded warriors,” Reed says.  “I talked with Terry Johnson, the owner of the lodge, and he was extremely supportive.  It took a little while but we worked things out.”

Reed’s expectations are simple. “I just want the guys to experience Alaska because they have paid so much and given so much.  It is just one way to help reinvigorate their fighting spirit and to possibly pay back a little.”

The wounded warriors include Master Sgt. Brett Hightower, Staff Sgt. Ricky Brooks, Staff Sgt. Ken Wininger, Sgt. Casey Cooper, Spc. Henry James and Spc. Jaremy Austin.  Staff Sgt. Bart Greenwood, an Iraqi War veteran, serves as their escort and support staff.  They are all met by Reed upon their arrival at Elmendorf Air Force Base, just outside the city of Anchorage, following a chain of flights courtesy of a Kentucky National Guard C-23 Sherpa and a Mississippi Air National Guard C-17.

Spc. Henry James, Spc. Jaremy Austin and Staff Sgt. Bart Greenwood share a moment at an arts fair in Anchorage before heading out for the Kenai Peninsula. Camaraderie between the troops was strong throughout Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

The schedule begins with a visit to the city of Anchorage, then a leisurely drive to the Kenai Peninsula for several days of fishing and taking in the Alaskan countryside.

Alaskan hospitality is evident everywhere the warriors travel.  Seventy-four year old Ron Fike welcomes the Kentuckians to his home, an aircraft hangar adjacent to a lonely gravel airstrip.  Fike, the archetype Alaskan, smiles modestly as he shows off his experimental plane and workshop.  The troops are fascinated as he tells of chasing a bear off his property just a few days before.

“I’m a disabled veteran, too, from Korea, so I can identify with them,” says Fike.  “I’m glad to see men like that come and visit.”

Korean War veteran Ron Fike (center) shows off his pride and joy to the Kentucky Guard wounded warriors. Surrounding Fike are Chuck Reed, Jaremy Austin, Casey Cooper, Ricky Brooks, Brett Hightower, Ken Winninger, Henry James and Chad Carroll. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Airplanes in Alaska are like pickup trucks in Kentucky.  It seems that just about everybody has one.  Johnny Evans, an Alaskan state park ranger and friend of Reed, flies as part of his ranger duties.  Unlike Fike, who lives in an apartment in his hangar, Evans built one on the front of his house.  The Kentuckians feel privileged when they are told they have full run of the house during a dinner held in their honor.

Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Reed and Alaskan Park Ranger Johnny Evans discuss their favorite subject: Alaska. "I just want the guys to experience Alaska because they have paid so much and given so much," says Reed. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

“Alaskans love the veterans,” Evans says.  “When I told everyone the wounded warriors were coming to visit, there was an outpouring of food and money to help them out on this trip.  People appreciate what these guys have done for our country.  I am honored.  I respect these guys and love’m.  I’d do this all the time if I could.”

Despite being told “take it easy and have fun, guys,” the troops pitch in wherever the need comes up.  During the cookout at Evans’ home Brooks and Wininger take over grilling duties, freeing the host to entertain his guests.  When Evans jumps in his airplane – in t-shirt and flip-flops, no less – and takes off to run an errand, he showers gravel into his newly constructed hangar.  Hightower, ever the NCO, puts down his Alaskan beer, picks up a broom and starts sweeping.  A few minutes later and the hangar looks brand new and ready for inspection.

“Now that’s a Soldier,” someone says.  Everyone smiles and nods.

Old habits die hard.

(Tomorrow:  Humor, adventure and brotherhood.  Oh, and some fishing, too!)

Spc. Jaremy Austin and Staff Sgt. Ricky Brooks give their approval. Both were severely injured by improvised explosive devices while serving in Iraq with the Kentucky Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 623rd Field Artillery. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

 

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