JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – The Alaska National Guard delivered gifts to people in three remote villages in a 65-year tradition known as Operation Santa Claus.
The Guard, in partnership with the Salvation Army, found a way to maintain the program despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Members took necessary precautions to bring gifts to rural villages experiencing hardship. This year’s iteration of Op Santa shared the Christmas spirit with Birch Creek, Stevens Village and Nanwalek.
“Our commitment to rural communities through Op Santa is a priority every holiday season,” said Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard. “We found a way to conduct the mission this year safely and effectively, while still sharing in the joy of the season with our neighbors.”
The program began in 1956 after spring floods, followed by a drought, limited subsistence fishing and hunting, requiring St. Mary’s Mission to buy food. This created a challenge for the mission to provide Christmas gifts for children, so the National Guard flew in donated gifts and supplies.
“It started in the village of St. Mary’s when they experienced a year of particular hardship and they still wanted to provide gifts for the children at their school, so the Anchorage community came together and gathered up gifts and the Alaska Air National Guard flew the gifts out to the village,” said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, the project officer for Op Santa.
For this year’s program, volunteers from the Alaska National Guard and the Salvation Army packaged presents donated by the community. Each child in all three villages received backpacks containing a wrapped gift, books and stocking stuffers. These backpacks were put into boxes that also contained puzzles, board games, coffee and nonperishable food items for the families.
For the first two deliveries, an Army Guard C-12 Huron flew gifts from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Fairbanks International Airport. From there, they were driven to Fort Wainwright and loaded on an Army Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter for special delivery. The flight was canceled due to unfavorable weather, but it was completed the next day, Dec. 2, to Birch Creek, a village with only five children, and Stevens Village, a community with nine children.
A CH-47 Chinook helicopter delivered gifts to Nanwalek on Dec. 11.
“This is the first year that one of our new Army National Guard Chinook helicopters participated in Op Santa,” said Olmstead, “We’re excited for them to carry on our long-standing tradition of delivering gifts to Alaskans in rural communities with military aircraft.”
Due to COVID-19 precautionary measures, the Guard members and volunteers delivered gifts to the villages while maintaining a safe distance from local residents.
“We offloaded the boxes, flew off, and then the folks from the villages came in to pick up the boxes,” said Olmstead. “This limited our interaction with them to ensure their safety.”
It was important to the Alaska National Guard and the Salvation Army to continue the tradition.
“We wanted to keep our commitment to the program and the communities alive, despite the challenges of a pandemic,” said Saxe. “The children and families are so excited and appreciative, and we really enjoy sharing in the spirit of the holiday season, continuing to grow relationships with all Alaskans.”