Dec. 11, 2001

517th Firebirds trek to remote Arctic village

By Staff Sgt. Jim Fisher
3rd Wing Public Affairs

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (PACAFNS) --For more than 30 years, an altruistic effort on the part of the Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, community has generated Christmas cheer for the remote village of Vashraii K'oo, or Arctic Village, nestled in the foothills of the state's northern Brooks Range.

This good cheer has been palletized and offloaded in four different decades-delivered by many generations of the Air Force family to the native enclave of slightly more than 150. The 31st mission and the latest generation of Elmendorf people visited the village Dec. 11.

Over the years, children of Arctic Village have waited patiently for the C-130s to touch down on a snow-covered, gravel runway. Many of those children are still there, now partaking as parents and celebrants of the much-awaited visits.

While no aircrew member, spouse or other volunteer can know what joys and concerns their predecessors encountered in years or decades past, the Gwich'in villagers bear witness to the evolution of a relationship between the villagers and their visitors.

Historically, the relationship began in 1967 as what would now be called a humanitarian mission. Villagers were in dire straits that winter when the peoples' lifeblood-the porcupine caribou migration-diverted due to a forest fire. The then 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron responded by airlifting hunters to the heard and back to the village. Socially, it has become a holiday exchange of gifts and goodwill. The social facet continues to improve, according to Lincoln Tritt, native author, columnist and life-long village resident.

"The attitude of the people, along with society in general, has really changed," he said. "When Air Force people come here they blend right in. Before there was more of a separation."

As Elmendorf people stepped off the transport into the sunless, -29 degree glow, the friendly exchanges began. The gift givers, including old Saint Nick himself, were whisked to the village on snow machines, sleds and one blue truck.

At the village activities center, the group found a banquet of holiday food waiting and festive dancing provided by the children. Square dancing, fueled by a fiddle and guitar ensemble, evoked clapping and foot stomping from the audience. More traditional dances followed.

"We went back to the old ways our people taught," Tritt said. "We know who we are now-we're a lot more comfortable with ourselves. And when you're comfortable with yourself, you're more comfortable with others. During the '70s and '80s, we lost a certain sense of our identity and we're getting that back now."

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Santa Claus, also known as Capt. Kevin Hubbard, prepares to egress the C-130 Hercules used to transport him to Arctic Village and deliver Christmas presents to village children. Normal sleigh and reindeer were not used due to -29 degree temperatures. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Fisher)

Cheyenne (left) and Joyce Gilbert of Arctic Village unwrap a present received from Santa and his helper 1st Lt. Lea Devine. The 517th Airlift Squadron made its annual visit to the village Dec. 11. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Fisher)

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The Elmendorf contingent was rewarded with exposure to this renewed culture and a shot in the arm of Christmas spirit.

"It's all pretty cool, to see how bright everyone's face is and how beautiful it is here," said volunteer Lynne Howard. "I think we appreciate them as much as they appreciate us."

1st Lt. Lea Devine enjoyed her second visit to the village, this time as the 517th's lead on the project.

"My first trip was really a total culture shock. It's a very warm community and they're really happy to see us and to see Santa and share the Christmas that we bring-they open up their village to us," Devine said.

When the preliminaries were complete, volunteers and Santa Claus began dispatching gifts-the main event, according to Tritt.

"We mostly do this for the children. They are the most important part of our society," he said.

The gifts were destined for children who had requested them in wish lists collected by squadron volunteers in recent months, Devine explained.

"We bought gifts for 63 children. The village sent wish lists with a lot of requests for jackets, walkman CD players-they don't have any radio stations to listen to-remote control cars for the boys, books, all kinds of things."

Money for the gifts came from a squadron auction in September, and local merchants donated items for the event.

"Since Arctic Village provides a big meal, we try to compensate them with a pallet of food," Devine said. "Bacon, eggs and staples like sugar and flour. We also bring as many fresh fruits and vegetables as we can, because they aren't available up there."

As each child came forward when their name was called, delight filled the room as disheveled wrapping paper began to cover the floor. They smiled and scurried to show presents to friends and family.

"I don't think they've slept since Monday night," Tritt said. "This is the highlight of the winter for them." The mission was originally scheduled for Dec. 8, but was postponed due to weather and maintenance.

As the event drew to a close and members began returning to the airstrip, they were left with the one constant impression over each of the 31 visits: the excitement of kids at Christmas.

"To see the look on the faces of the children," Devine said. "That's the best part."

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