Kentucky Wounded Warriors enjoy unique experience in Alaska

Story by Tech. Sgt. Jason Ketterer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

2012 Wounded Warrior Alaska

Kentucky National Guard Wounded Warriors Staff Sgt. Kevin Kerschner, Spc. (R) Christopher MacKay, Sgt. (R) Shane Kazee, Staff Sgt. Joe Lynch, Spc. Bobby Mills, Staff Sgt. Loni Abalama, Staff Sgt. Larry Green, escort Staff Sgt. Dale Botts, Sgt. 1st Class Mike Osbourne and Kentucky National Guard Wounded Warrior Program Coordinator Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Reed enjoy the view at Summit Lake in Chugach National Forest, Alaska. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Ketterer)

SOLDOTNA, Alaska — Members of the Kentucky National Guard travel far and wide in defense of our nation and Commonwealth. Their sacrifices of mind and body place them in high esteem as national treasures and also as the finest that Kentucky has to offer. Those that redeploy back home, having spilled blood in defense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are called Wounded Warriors. These troops are offered a rare opportunity to travel to the last frontier, gaze upon its natural beauty, and to bring home enough fish to feed an army.

For the fourth year, the crown jewel of the Kentucky National Guard’s Wounded Warrior Project once again introduced a few good men to Alaska. In June, eight soldiers, some retired and some still serving, were treated to a ten day trip to the “last frontier.”  They enjoyed halibut fishing in Homer and Seward, a train ride into Denali National Park to view wildlife surrounding Mount McKinley, aerial tours of glaciers, and of course clam digging and bear watching on the shores of the Cook Inlet.

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“The best part was the fishing down at Seward. It was a great all-day trip where we got to see a lot of scenery and we got to do a lot of fishing. Everyone in the group had a good time and we all fed off that energy,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Osbourne, Joint Force Headquarters.

2012 Wounded Warrior Alaska

Spc. (R) Christopher MacKay, Wounded Warrior traveling with the Kentucky National Guard, reels in a big one while fishing in Prince William Sound off the coast of Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Joe Lynch)

This vacation of a lifetime has enough action-packed adventure that it would even keep Clark Griswald, of National Lampoon fame, content for its duration. The idea for this trip came to fruition through the social network Kentucky Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Reed established in the 49th state. Reed, a retired Kentucky State Trooper and part-time employee of the Salmon Catcher Lodge in Soldotna, Alaska, calls on his friends and works logistics to make sure these wounded warriors get to relax, rejuvenate and, most importantly, experience Alaska.

“These men have signed their name on the dotted line and were willing to sacrifice everything, including their life, for their country and countrymen. They have traveled abroad, have been targeted by the enemy, wounded by the enemy and they have survived. We’re here to celebrate that fact,” said Reed.

Celebration is something that is not always an easy task to accomplish for these wounded warriors.

“Getting to talk with fellow troops who all know what each other are going through, builds a bond amongst soldiers. It’s like free counseling because they understand. Sitting around the campfire at night, a lot of stuff got talked out. I think it did a lot of good for us,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Kershner, 201st Engineer Battalion. “I’d like to thank our leadership and everyone who has made this trip possible for us. It’s been great and has helped me out a lot mentally.”

Jeff Ambroiser, principal of Ninilchik School in Ninilchik, Alaska took time out of his six-week vacation from school to go fishing for halibut with the Soldiers in Homer, Alaska.  Ambroiser and his wife Elise host a dinner for the troops a few days after and treat them to halibut and salmon. When thanked by the group, Jeff shrugs his shoulders as if obliged. “Of course, this is the least I could do.”

Johnny Evans, friend of Reed and Alaskan State Park Ranger, opened up his home as well, and neighbors and family were entertained by stories from the Soldiers. Evans rallied them all there for their support, their contributions to a potluck dinner and for donations to help show the troops a good time. Evans and his friends did not stop with filling their stomachs with sustenance and helping fund the trip, they personally spoke to each soldier, shook their hand and extended him a standing invitation to return for a hunting trip.

2012 Wounded Warrior Alaska

Staff Sgt. Kevin Kerschner, Kentucky National Guard Wounded Warrior, prepares for takeoff as he flies with the Kenai Peninsula Experimental Aircraft Association, who graciously donated flights to the soldiers. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Ketterer)

During their trip the Kentucky Wounded Warriors were given the once in a lifetime opportunity to fly over the mountains and glaciers that grace the Alaskan landscape, courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 975 and Everts Air Cargo, who graciously combined resources to conduct the flights.  The aviators also held a potluck dinner and reception for their guests.

“These fliers aren’t just first rate pilots,” said Reed.  “EAA representative Jim Trudeau and his folks are patriots who understand what these men have been through and have been generous enough to share the beauty of this land through their gift of aviation.

“They really went overboard on this project.”

Another benefactor for the Wounded Warriors was the Silver Salmon Creek lodge, which fed the troops and gave them a world class tour of bear country … complete with bears.

This abundance of patriotism and willingness to give back runs rampant up north. Terry Johnson, owner of the Salmon Catcher Lodge, donated the entire week stay to the wounded warriors. “I’m thankful for their sacrifices and for what they’ve done and to put them up for a week isn’t much. I’ve been up here for 27 years and I’d like to share it with as many people as I can,” said Johnson.

“I can’t say enough about Terry Johnson and all of the folks who’ve supported these guys,” said Reed.  “The spirit of Alaska is alive and well in its citizens.  Kentucky should be proud to have friends like these.”

Of course, a trip like this wouldn’t be complete without a ride on the Hurricane, courtesy of the Alaska Railroad, and a stop in world-famous Talkeetna, site of the popular television show “Northern Exposure.”

To experience the Kentucky Wounded Warrior Project’s annual trip to Alaska, wounded warriors and their unit leadership should be proactive.

“My sergeant major contacted Sergeant First Class Reed and informed him of myself and other soldiers in our unit. Reed contacted me and the next thing I know I’m bear-watching in Alaska,” said Spc. Bobby Mills, 149th Forward Support Company. “It’s not every day you can be 20 feet from a bear and not be dinner.”

“It isn’t like being home, that’s for sure,” added Staff Sgt. Joe Lynch, 1257th Transportation Company. “Our younger soldiers need to take advantage of this program and stay involved or these sort of opportunities will go by the wayside.”

One of the last stops for our Guardsmen was giving their own hospitality call at the hanger/apartment of 71-year-old, Vietnam Veteran and fellow wounded warrior, Ron Fike.  A long-time friend of Reed, the classic exemplar Alaskan shared stories with the soldiers and tried to persuade a few of them to adopt his way of living. “With their specialized training, active personalities and interest in the area, I think they should come up and make a go of it,” he said with a grin.

The satisfied smiles on our soldier’s faces and their gracious praise witnessed by those participating in their trip will be carried with them for the rest of their lives. This gift to them has been passed on to those that they met. Through stories and their resilience, they’ve rejuvenated and inspired those that lent a hand.

2012 Wounded Warrior Alaska

Bears dig for clams at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The Wounded Warriors took a bear-watching tour from the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge on the western shores of Cook Inlet, Alaska. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Loni Abalama)

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