Photos: Operation Santa delivers to Buckland, but weather delays Chevak presents

people in uniform unload gifts from a helicopter to a truck in the winter
Alaska National Guard members unload gifts from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Buckland on Dec. 14, 2021, as part of Operation Santa Claus. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Maj. Chelsea Aspelund)

A camouflaged Santa whirled into Buckland on a funny-looking sleigh this year. As part of its annual Operation Santa Claus, the Alaska National Guard delivered 261 presents to the community in northwest Alaska on December 14. Santa says he’ll drop off 360 gifts to Chevak after the holidays and once weather conditions allow.

a present sits on a pallet. It reads "Merry Christmas, Buckland"
A present bound for a child in Buckland flies on a military plane to Nome on Dec. 2, 2021. 261 presents will soon be delivered from Nome to children in Buckland, as part of the Alaska Air National Guard’s Operation Santa. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Azara Mohammadi, tribal liaison for the Alaska National Guard, coordinated with the Native Village of Buckland and Chevak Native Village to organize and shop for gifts. The Salvation Army made the purchases, and volunteers wrapped gifts that began their journey to the two predominantly Alaska Native communities at the start of the month.

people in military uniforms board a plane
Members of the Alaska Air National Guard board a C-130 plane at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage on Dec. 2, 2021, to participate in Operation Santa. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

On December 2, 24 Guard members boarded a C-130 plane loaded with 631 presents. The gifts were offloaded in Bethel and Nome, where they would be stored until delivery to the two communities. The Chevak-bound presents are still in Bethel, as of Christmas Eve.

a person in military uniform points
Joseph A. Sallaffie, a sergeant with the Active Guard Reserve in Bethel, during Operation Santa on Dec. 2, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Joseph Sallaffie, a sergeant with the Active Guard Reserve in Bethel, said Operation Santa helps the communities a lot during the holidays. “Yesterday, me and my wife went to the local store here to look for some water and Gatorade, and we just had a hard time getting cases of water, so imagine if Bethel stores are having a hard time, imagine what the village stores are going through.”

Randell Andrew, a sergeant with the Active Guard Reserve in Bethel, operates a forklift to unload 2,770-pounds of presents from an Operation Santa flight on Dec. 2, 2021. Presents will be delivered to Chevak as part of Operation Santa. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Dana Rosso, a public affairs specialist with the Alaska National Guard, said Operation Santa began in 1956, when St. Mary’s Mission was hit with spring floods and then a drought – impacting subsistence fishing and hunting. Rosso said the Air National Guard flew in donated gifts and supplies to help residents that year.

a pilot looks at a handheld tablet and flies a plane
“Yeah, we’re Santa Clause up front, driving the reindeer around.” Trevor Bunkers, a captain with the Alaska Air National Guard’s 211th Rescue Squadron, copilots an Operation Santa flight from Anchorage to Bethel, to Nome, and back to Anchorage. In Bethel and Nome, military personnel unloaded presents that will ultimately be delivered to Chevak and Buckland. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Rosso said Operation Santa recipient communities are identified by Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management as communities that have experienced particular hardship that year. The tribes in Chevak and Buckland could not be reached by time of publication.

people in military uniforms sitting on a military plane
Members of the Alaska Air National Guard ride on a C-130 plane to Bethel on Dec. 2, 2021, the first stop in Operation Santa. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

No Guard members wore masks on the trip to Bethel and Nome, but Rosso said service members selected for the mission came from the same unit and office area, in order to lower the risk of Covid transmission. December 2, the day of the initial Operation Santa flight, was also the national deadline for Air National Guard service members to be vaccinated. Rosso said he did not have current vaccination numbers for the Alaska National Guard.

Michael Cashman, a tech sergeant with the Alaska Air National Guard’s 211th Rescue Squadron, looks out the window of a C-130 plane. Cashman is a rescue loadmaster, but for Operation Santa, “We’d be the elves.” For Chevak, he and another loadmaster loaded 2,770-pounds of presents, and for Buckland, they loaded 1650-pounds of presents. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“This means a whole lot since, like I mentioned, Covid-19 and hard times – this means a whole lot,” Sallaffie said. “It’s kind of hard for them to enjoy a Christmas like it used to be, but with all this, it makes a difference.”

pallets of gifts sit on a tarmac
An Operation Santa flight delivers 2,770-pounds of presents to Bethel on Dec. 2, 2021, where they’ll be stored until they can be transported to their final destination in Chevak. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
people unload gifts from a helicopter
A Buckland resident helps unload gifts from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Dec. 14, 2021, as part of the Alaska National Guard’s Operation Santa Claus. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Maj. Chelsea Aspelund)
people load presents onto a truck
A Buckland resident helps unload gifts from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Dec. 14, 2021, as part of the Alaska National Guard’s Operation Santa Claus. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Maj. Chelsea Aspelund)
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