Elmendorf squadron takes holiday cheer north



by Tech. Sgt. Theo McNamara
3rd Wing Public Affairs






12/17/2004 - ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AFPN) -- As Santa Claus prepares for his big trip from the North Pole, he took some time out to make a special trip with the 517th Airlift Squadron "Firebirds" here to deliver Christmas presents and supplies to an Athabascan village in northern Alaska -- a tradition that's been around for 37 years.

In 1967, when the squadron, then known as 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron, learned the Athabascan community of Arctic Village was in danger of going hungry, they responded. Village hunters were unable to reach the local caribou herd, their primary source of food, because of changed migration habits. The squadron flew the hunters closer to the herd and transported their bounty back to the village.

"Saying the program has evolved over the years means different things to different people," said Liz Feather, wife of Lt. Col. Otto Feather, 517th AS commander. "What undoubtedly remains the same is the commitment the (squadron) family has had in sharing with this incredible community of people."







ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska -- Children here greet Santa Claus recently. The Alaska-native community is north of the Arctic Circle where Santa delivered gifts and supplies for the 37th year in a row. Santa traveled to the village on a C-130 Hercules from Elmendorf Air Force Base's 517th Airlift Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown)




In 1968, Santa Claus flew with the squadron to Arctic Village. Though the village was not experiencing the hardship of the year before, Santa's C-130 Hercules was loaded with food, winter clothing and supplies.

"This is an opportunity to celebrate and learn from the diversity within our state," Mrs. Feather said. "This community isn't suffering from financial ruin; this journey is more about two communities coming together."

The village's senior elder, Trimble Gilbert, said the trip to Arctic Village could not be described any better.


"When I was a young man, we didn't even know there was such a thing as Christmas," said Mr. Gilbert, the village's minister. "But around this time of year people from other villages would travel by foot to our village to share their surpluses, and we in turn would give them gifts to carry back to their village.

"It wasn't so much about the gifts as it was learning about each other and from each other," he said. "It's now up to us to teach our young children the importance of sharing."

During Santa's visit the village's elementary school, children performed a small play, "The Shoemakers and the Elves," and a chorus of Christmas carols followed. But the celebration did not truly begin until Santa started calling out names and handing out gifts.

"I love the C-130 Santa," said 5-year-old Jewel Gilbert. "I've been hoping he would come here. I told my little sister he would, and he did! We asked him to bring us a Barbie and a Care Bear for my little sister, and he did. He also brought me some clothes and boots for my Barbie."

The children were not the only people feeling the joy of giving and receiving.

"When I was a little girl, Santa Claus would fly over, waving from the side door, and the men would drop Santa's gifts out the back," said Bertha Ross, a village resident. "It was the most exciting thing for the whole year."

Even though much has changed in 37 years, Ms. Ross said she still feels the excitement she did as a little girl, staring into the sky as Santa and his helpers dropped treasures into her community.

"I get so much pleasure from watching the next generation experience the magic of this unique Christmas tradition," she said.