Gold Star in the Chugach: Iraq vet honors survivors

Kirk Alkire carries dogtags of 53 Fort Richardson soldiers who died in Iraq, on Alkire’s final deployment. Photo: Murphy McCollough/Office of Rep. Don Young

A 4,000-foot mountain on the northern edge of Anchorage has a new name: Gold Star Peak. That’s thanks to an Army veteran from Eagle River who has been campaigning for the name since last year. He’s driven by an especially tragic day in Iraq.

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For years, when he was a soldier based at Fort Richardson and after he retired, Kirk Alkire has hiked up a mountain near Eklutna, called Mount POW/MIA. It has a flag that he tends to.

“We climb it and we replace the flag, every time we go up,” Alkire said. “The weather that blows off Eklutna Glacier through that valley, it’s punishing for the flags.”

Mount POW/MIA was named in 1999. Alkire didn’t know when he started climbing the mountain that he would have a deeply personal connection to that ritual.

“My last deployment that I did in 2006 and 2007 to Iraq is what kind of changed everything for me,” Alkire said.

Four soldiers from Fort Richardson, from his unit, were abducted in a raid of their guarded compound in Karbala, Iraq. The bodies of Jonathan Chism, Shawn Falter, Jacob Fritz and Jonathan Millican, were found soon after.

Alkire says the four were posthumously awarded the medal for Prisoners of War.

“During that process the families were presented with those medals, and that was the very turning point for me, in climbing that mountain,” Alkire said.

Those were not the only soldiers from the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry to die on Jan. 20, 2007. Four others were killed that day by an improvised explosive device. In all, 53 soldiers from Fort Richardson’s 4/25 were killed in Iraq over the 15-month deployment.

Kirk Alkire, on a visit to Rep. Don Young’s office. Photo: Murphy McCollough/Office of Don Young.

Alkire had 53 stainless-steel dog tags made with their names. He carries the set with him almost everywhere.

“Pretty much. Especially when I’m out on an adventure,” Alkire said. “If I’m climbing or skiing or whatever I’m doing, adventure-wise. I took them with me to the Grand Canyon. I was just in Arlington, in the cemetery visiting friends and I took them with me.”

Alkire retired as a first sergeant in 2008 and now works as a civilian on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, in the protocol office, handling VIP visits. Alkire says meeting the survivors of deceased soldiers is especially meaningful to him. They’re called Gold Star families.

“It’s therapeutic for me to be able to talk to them and share a climb up the mountain with them. It means the world to me,” Alkire said. “It helps me, and many others like me, to kind of continue on.”

The newly named Gold Star Peak is near Eklutna Lake. (Image via Google Maps)

About a year and half ago, on top of Mount POW/MIA, it struck Alkire that the peak just to the west should be named in honor of the Gold Star families. So he set out to make that happen. He filed an application with the federal government. He collected signatures and local support. Thursday he presented his case to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in Washington, D.C. The board approved it unanimously.

Then it was on to the Capitol, where Sen. Dan Sullivan honored Alkire and his effort.

“Families who have lost loved ones, who made the ultimate sacrifice serving their nation, will now be able to look up at Gold Star Peak as they drive up the busy Glenn Highway in Alaska, and they will see that 4,000-foot peak soar into the sky,” Sullivan said in a speech from the floor of the Senate.

Gold Star Peak and Mount POW/MIA are connected by a ridge and accessed from the same trailhead on Eklutna Lake Road.