By Sean Kimmons, Army News ServiceFebruary 28, 2018
FORT MEADE, Md. -- Just over a decade ago, former 1st Sgt. Kirk Alkire's unit lost more than 50 Soldiers -- three of whom were captured and executed by insurgents -- during an intense deployment to Iraq.
The deadly toll endured by the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) as part of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad still weighs heavily on him.
Now living in Eagle River, Alaska, close to where the brigade is based, Alkire's passion for the outdoors has helped him cope and reflect on his fallen Soldiers. It also led him to name an Alaskan mountain to honor families of those who died in service to the nation -- a living monument he hopes provide them solace as well.
"I found a powerful connection between mountains, climbing and grieving," said Alkire, who is 51. "It's therapeutic."
GOLD STAR PEAK
After a yearlong process, the U.S. Geological Survey's Board of Geographic Names approved his proposal on Feb. 8. Now an otherwise unnamed 4,148-foot peak near Anchorage is officially recognized as Gold Star Peak.
With about 300 Gold Star families in Alaska, Alkire sought to name a mountain for them and others around the country. The peak stands next to Mount POW/MIA, another mountain dedicated in 1999 to prisoners of war or those missing in action.
Before his Iraq deployment in 2006, Alkire and his friends often climbed the latter mountain to replace U.S. and POW/MIA flags that constantly fly atop of it. Once back in Alaska, climbing the mountain had a greater impact on him. Three Soldiers assigned to his unit in Iraq -- Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment -- and a civil affairs officer had briefly been taken prisoner before they were killed.
"Those were my guys," he said Monday. "When that happened, that just changed everything for me of what that mountain means."
At the summit of Mount POW/MIA, he helped place a memorial box with photos and information on them. He then eyed a nearby mountain he thought could pay tribute to Gold Star families, who had also made a personal sacrifice.
"I had to find a mountain near it because the two are so very connected in history," he said. "I had a new mission and that's what I did."
In his petition, Alkire submitted an in-depth presentation on the mountain to ensure it met guidelines to designate it as a stand-alone geographic feature. While the area has a native Alaskan name, there was no name on state or federal record.
To drum up support, he wrote letters to elected officials in Alaska, attended city council meetings and started an online petition that garnered over 1,500 signatures from people in all 50 states, four countries and one U.S. territory, he said.
One such proponent was U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. When Alkire first met the senator, he told him about the casualties his unit suffered in its deployment and showed him a ring full of dog tags he often keeps with him.
"When I pull out the 53 dog tags and show them to someone they say, 'Wow, was this over 20 years of service?' I say, "No, it was just 15 months,'" he said. "It rocks them and rocked Senator Sullivan, who himself is a Marine colonel."
Hours after the unanimous approval to officially name Gold Star Peak, the senator called out Alkire as the "Alaskan of the Week" on the Senate floor.
In his remarks, Sullivan spoke about his first meeting with the veteran and his collection of dog tags.
"It was powerful and moving, and in some ways it was so horrible to look at because these are the lives and names of the best and brightest we have in America," the senator said. "That is why he did it, and that is why he was motivated."
Alkire, who had flown to Washington, D.C., that week to support his endeavor, did not know about the senator's plan beforehand. Humbled by the gesture, he was glad it shone a spotlight on Gold Star families.
"It's putting them on the map for the public to get a better understanding," he said. "They're everywhere within our communities and too many communities have forgotten that they are there or they don't even know. So, this [mountain] will help educate people."
A state grant will pay for a plaque to be put on top of the mountain, and a Medal of Honor foundation has agreed to fund a granite monument along a nearby road for those who cannot do the climb, he said.
Before it was named, Alkire escorted Gold Star families on an emotional journey up the mountain to honor their loved ones during the summer. He felt an enormous bond with the families as they opened up about their loss, he said.
"Watching them ... be overcome with emotions of their grief and everything they've been dealing with, along with the fact they made it to the summit of this difficult climb, was powerful," he said. "We fed off each other as we climbed, and it felt really good at the end of day."
He plans to share the hike with veterans, especially those in his former unit, who have lost friends in combat. Some of his Soldiers have committed suicide, he said, and many others still struggle with the events from the deployment.
"It's never going to go away," he said of the memories. "I honestly don't want it to go away because as soon as it does, that's when you forget about those we've lost."
(Editor's note: For those interested in locating Gold Star Peak with an online map, the site is at [61.444650, -149.208310].)