KOTZEBUE, AK. -- Buried beneath layers of clothing, taking caution with each passing step on the slick ice, and working hard to take cover from the numbing wind, I walk the streets of Kotzebue, Alaska, better known as the “Gateway to the Arctic.”
Here you’ll find vehicles submerged under compacted snow, thick-coated dogs thriving in the elements, snowmobiles replacing the need for cars, and local people with warm smiles, waving and welcoming service members supporting Innovative Readiness Training Arctic Care 2018.
IRT Arctic Care aims to give the Marine Corps Reserve and other service branches hands-on readiness training by sending teams to 12 remote villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough, providing medical, dental, optometry and veterinary care to the local populace. The goal is to not only enhance the readiness of the military, but to also bear direct and lasting benefits to residents of each village served.
Kotzebue is home to about 3,500 residents and is located approximately 26 miles above the Arctic Circle. The Maniilaq Health Center is the major medical facility in the community, and also serves as the primary health facility for the entire Northwest Arctic Borough, meaning the residents in the outlying villages need to travel here for their medical services.
Throughout approximately 170 rural villages of the state of Alaska, there are Community Health Aides (CHAPS) who work in village based clinics. According to the Alaska Community Health Aide Program, which is the organization that sponsors CHAPS, there are about 550 acting CHAPS who provide basic health assessments and treat common illnesses to the local village residents.
This is where IRT Arctic Care plays a crucial role. Aside from providing standard medical, dental and veterinary care to the residents and their families, the service members also bring a skill set of specialties ranging from oral surgeons to gastrointestinal doctors. This allows the residents to receive medical care they might not normally have access to.
So far, approximately 1,871 residents of the numerous villages have received medical care through service members, and the training is only half way done. There have been 466 medical patients seen, 477 optometry appointments and 928 dental procedures conducted. There have also been 198 animals seen by the veterinary teams located in several of the rural villages. The numbers will only continue to climb from here.
As dozens of patients take turns rotating through the chairs of the service members, and sharing meals with each other in the cafeteria, I see and hear conversations being exchanged about differences in culture, family life back home and plans for the future. There is a true desire from both ends of the spectrum to develop a personal bond that will have impacts for years down the road.
Aside from making lasting impacts with patients, the service members of IRT Arctic Care have also immersed themselves with children at the Kotzebue Elementary School. During a career day at the school, service members spoke to children about endless opportunities, staying in school and dreaming big. The day ended with smiles, hugs and pictures as the children and teachers thanked the service members, and “pinky promises” were made with each other to cross paths again.
Without strengthening these partnerships with host communities, the imprint left by Innovative Readiness Training's would not be as large or valuable. The service members working day in and day out to train and maintain readiness, and leave their positive footprint on the communities surrounding the Arctic Circle is what makes IRT Arctic Care so beneficial.
As the service members move into their last week of training, I see them sharing stories of positive and meaningful interactions they have had with the local residents. These newly formed friendships are what is going to make saying “see you later” bittersweet as they pack up and return home to their families. But if they can walk away with one thing, it’s knowing that through their service to their country, they have forged bonds that will forever unite the military with the welcoming residents of the land of the midnight sun.