With gov’s support, Bethel to be seat of new scout battalion

With National Guard recruit numbers at a low in Alaska and concerns for Arctic security at a high, Gov. Walker wants to start a new line of defense across the state. He’s included $2.3 million in his proposed budget for the project, and he wants this new force to begin in Bethel.

Download Audio

Gov. Walker wants to create a military model of the first of its kind in the nation. It’d be a rural branch of the state militia called a scout battalion. Its purpose is to have local people with local knowledge on the ground, ready and trained to respond to natural and human-caused disasters.

“We know with climate change and Arctic development, more than ever, there’s activities offshore where who is to know who is coming ashore now? Who is to know what is being floated our way?”

That’s Bob Doehl, deputy commissioner with the Alaska Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs. He says the number of National Guard recruits have dwindled over the decades in Alaska. For instance, in the 1980s there were about 600 guards in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Now, there’s 40. And Doehl says there’s no federal commitment to work on expanding those numbers. His says this lack of force creates a homeland security gap, especially in rural areas.

“If you think about Homeland Security, one of the basics of sovereignty is to know what is going on in the lands you proclaim sovereignty over and to be able to address the needs there. And right now, it’s not cost effective and there isn’t a means of any other presence in many of these villages.”

Hence the state-run scout battalion.

“We would create small detachments across different villages in rural Alaska who would be there to do homeland security, civil defense, emergency preparedness, disaster mitigation/preparation type activities.”

Doehl says the battalion would draw on the model of the Alaska Territorial Guard during WWII and the Cold War of local volunteers scouting for enemy threats.

Large numbers of residents from the Yukon Kuskokwim region volunteered for the guard, and Doehl says this history is what attracted his department to choose Bethel as its pilot site for the battalion.

Doehl says he envisions about 15 scouts per village, a number he says that allows for teamwork and specialization as well as a base of local knowledge. This last part he calls the key to the whole scout concept.

“Of the state defense force models out there, I think we envision far more collaboration in working with the local knowledge and the elders in determining for a given need the best way to meet that.”

Doehl says the state would compensate its scouts, paying day wages and re-imbursing for gas used during patrols. It would not offer medical coverage but would provide training for such things as leadership, wilderness first aid, and disaster mitigation. He says it would also open service to people who can’t join the National Guard, either because they’re deemed too old or have a certain medical condition.

Doehl says the economics of the battalion are still being worked out, and the whole plan rests on the legislature passing the $2.3 million proposed by the governor to start the program.