Honoring Alaska’s Unique Veterans

Col. Suellyn Novak poses with a model USS Grunion, a submarine lost in WWII.
Col. Suellyn Novak of the Alaska Veteran’s Museum poses with a model USS Grunion, a submarine lost in WWII.

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Today we’re celebrating Veterans Day. For a little more than a year now, Senator Lisa Murkowski and her office have been producing video profiles that they’ve titled “Veteran Spotlights.”

“It has been an effort to encourage people who have stories to tell of their service, of their commitment, that they want to include as part of our nations living legacy,” says Murkowski.  The Senator says Alaska has a rich military history and that our state taken part in some of the countries’ biggest moments, even if not everyone knows it.

“We’ve got some amazing stories for instance from members of our Territorial Guard. Many people across the country don’t even know we had a Territorial Guard, or Eskimo scouts,” says Murkowski. The Senator hopes the Veteran Spotlight program will do more than just profile veterans. She wants to give these people a platform to talk about some of the most important issues impacting the military. “By sharing their story they can help others; talking openly about things like PTSD, the issue of military suicide. Stepping up, speaking out, and leading by example on some critical issues.”

Senator Murkowski says so many veterans continuing serving each other, long after their military service is over. Veterans like Colonel Suellyn Novak, who was featured on the Veterans Spotlight program, and who also runs the Alaska Veteran’s Museum in Anchorage.

“You need to come up and see us. We’re right behind the Eskimo scout statue on 4th Avenue, and we can tell you some really great stories. It’s a fun time, and it’s the best three dollars you ever spent,” Novak says, giving her pitch for the museum.  She has been in charge there since it launched in 2011, but her military service started much further back. “I did over 32 years in the United States Air Force. I was truly blessed, because it was all I ever wanted to do or be.”

And that is not an understatement. Novak recalls when her third grade teacher asked the students in her class to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. “So I’m sketching away and she’s standing over me and she says ‘Suellyn what is this?’ and I say ‘I’m a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force and I’m saluting a Major outside of a barracks.’ She says ‘your family isn’t military, why are you doing this?’ and I say ‘that’s what I’m supposed to be. I’m going to be a full squadron commander in Alaska.’ And guess what? That’s what I was,”  Novak says.

The Alaska veteran’s museum is packed with military memorabilia. Posters and photos line every inch of the wall, massive models of warships sit in glass displays, and each corner of the room seems to have a story to tell. Novak points out the display of the USS Grunion. “That’s my favorite of all time. That was a case of a submarine that was lost on July 30th, 1942. And she wasn’t found until 2007, due to the love of the skipper’s three sons trying to find out what happened to their dad,” Novak says.

This wedding dress made of WWII era parachute material, originally belonged to Renelda Ronvelda Peacock.
This wedding dress made of WWII era parachute material, originally belonged to Renelda Ronvelda Peacock.

And there’s some oral history as well, including interviews from the final four Alaskan Scouts, the last of whom passed away just this year. Another gem in the museum is a dress made out of a parachute. It belonged to an Alaskan military wife, and it has quite the story.

Novak explained the significance of the piece – Renelda Ronvelda Peacock’s husband was a B-17 driver in WWII. He was asked to volunteer for a mission and he got shot down on that mission. When he got shot down he had to parachute out.

The soldier went down over Russia, and was even held captive by the Russians despite being an ally of the US at the time. After his release the soldier had no choice but to sell the only thing he had left for food and supplies; his parachute. But he only sold half.

“He kept this other half of the parachute and when he got back to his base in Italy he took it down to the seamstress and said ‘here’s my wife’s measurements, I want a robe and nighty made out of this, and by the way I want to keep those two bullet holes in the front right up in plain sight because I don’t want her to ever forget what I went through to get this for her,” Novak says. She says that’s what the museum is all about, remembering our veterans. She hopes these heroes will be on everyone’s mind this Veterans Day.

“Anchorage is very good at saying thank you to its veterans. But as fewer and fewer people serve in the military, it’s more and more important we remember those people,” Novak says.

The Alaska veteran’s museum will be free on Veterans Day from 10-5. But if you’re not able to make it, Senator Murkowski offers a simple alternative.

“When we see someone in uniform, it’s very easy to say ‘Thank you for your service.’ If you see a soldier in line at Starbucks, buy them that cup of coffee. So, as Alaskans I encourage us not only on Veterans Day to show our gratitude and thanks, but truly every day,” Murkowski says.

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David Waldron began his radio career in 2000 as a volunteer DJ at UAA’s radio station KRUA 88.1, where he hosted a weekend music show. In 2004 he was hired as the station’s Music Director, and held the position until his graduation in 2007. After a few radio odd jobs, he was hired by Alaska Public Media in 2008 as an operator and audio engineer. He currently engineers the statewide programs Alaska News Nightly and Talk of Alaska for APRN, as well as KSKA's Hometown Alaska and Line One: Your Health Connection. He also hosts and produces AK, a weekly news program that airs at the end of Alaska News Nightly on Fridays. dwaldron (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8425 | About Dave

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