JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter filled with volunteers and holiday gifts for children in the northwest community of Scammon Bay touched down on the south bank of the frozen Kun River, one mile from the Bering Sea.
With more than a dozen volunteers on board, two Alaska Army National Guardsmen, based out of Bethel and at different points in their careers, came together to support the 67th iteration of Operation Santa Claus Nov. 16.
Pfc. Jared Alirkar, a transportation management coordinator with the 49th Personnel Detachment (Theater Gateway), enlisted one year ago, while Staff Sgt. Eddie Jones with the Recruiting and Retention Battalion has spent more than two decades in its ranks.
Known as the hub of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, Bethel is 146 miles southeast of Scammon Bay and is where Jones, Alirkar and their families call home.
“As the only full-time recruiter in the YK Delta, I am the community contact for the region and responsible for seeking strong candidates to fill important positions in the Alaska Army National Guard,” said Jones, who is serving an almost three-year rotation recruiting for an area covering almost 50,000 square miles in southwest Alaska, roughly the size of North Carolina.
“I had a great predecessor, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Wilbanks, who showed me the ins and outs of the position here,” said Jones. “After six years of working in the Bethel community and across the region, he has left some pretty big shoes to fill, and I am definitely up for the challenge.”
While traveling to remote Alaskan villages across western Alaska isn’t new to Jones, this is his first year participating in Operation Santa Claus.
From Kotlik down to Goodnews Bay, Jones travels to outlying areas twice a month by commercial plane, Black Hawk helicopter, or even driving on the network of frozen rivers that turn into an ice highway connecting western Alaskan villages in the winter.
Jones enlisted as an infantryman in 2000, following his father and grandfather in U.S. Army service. Over two decades, he has participated in domestic operations, deployed to Iraq and served two tours in Afghanistan. Nearing retirement, Jones felt Bethel was a good fit for his career and family.
“I wanted this position to find quality Soldiers that can fill the void when I decide to retire or can no longer do this job,” said Jones, recognizing that he is surrounded by people who thrive in extreme weather and have a lengthy history of military service.
One of these experts, born and raised in Bethel, is Alirkar, who, like Jones, continued his family’s tradition of military service. His father, maternal grandfather and uncle served in the National Guard.
Alirkar said during the Scammon Bay mission, he was able to reconnect with veterans who served in the military with his father.
Alirkar and Jones assisted alongside more than a dozen Alaska National Guard, Salvation Army and community volunteers. They moved boxes with 1,780 pounds of gifts, backpacks, hygiene supplies and books for 325 children. When the youngsters weren’t meeting Santa and Mrs. Claus or enjoying ice cream sundaes, they surrounded Guardsmen and asked about their uniforms and military jobs.
“I had a blast helping and watching the kids light up when they saw Mr. and Mrs. Claus,” said Jones, who said the mission was just as rewarding to the Guardsmen who volunteered as it was to the children. “I’m so thankful I am in a position to give back to the communities in the region and to my family and battalion for supporting me throughout this transition to my new job.”
Since 1956, the Alaska National Guard has supported Operation Santa Claus with community organizations and volunteers to spread joy to small, remote communities throughout Alaska. In the 67th year of the program, Operation Santa Claus will travel to Minto and Nuiqsut later this holiday season.
For this operation, Santa traded in his sleigh for rides on a 176th Wing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Bethel and then swapped over to UH and HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to complete the mission to Scammon Bay.
While Alirkar is still experiencing many firsts, like flying in a Black Hawk helicopter and preparing for an anticipated deployment in 2024, Jones is starting one of his final assignments for a career that has spanned decades. For the day, Soldiers from two eras worked alongside each other to help fulfill an Alaska National Guard annual tradition.