Recently, the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Army informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. Army Alaska is being redesignated as the 11th Airborne Division “Angels,” to the accompaniment of significant media attention and much social media hubbub.
And while both senior leaders and rank-and-file Soldiers seem to welcome the change, it begs the question; why the 11th Airborne Division?
According to the Chief of Staff of the Army, it starts with identity.
“The 11th (Airborne Division) has a great history and heritage that means a lot to Soldiers,” said Gen. James C. McConville, the 40th CSA. “Also, we’re looking at the Arctic very differently. We put out a strategy. We think it's very different.
“We’ve got to be able to operate in that environment. We have to make sure the units have the capabilities, and that gives them the confidence to be special,” explained McConville. “They have the right vehicles to operate in the coldest climate. They have the right equipment and the right clothing. All those things come together to give them a sense of identity.”
According to the secretary, the Army will re-designate USARAK this summer as the 11th Airborne Division and its two Alaska-based brigade combat teams as the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams, 11th Airborne Division. It’s a decision rooted in the 11th Airborne Division’s storied history of service in the Pacific during WWII and its airborne designation that aligns with maintaining the Army’s sole airborne brigade in the Pacific.
Why the need for a new identity?
Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, USARAK commander, emphasized that living, training and operating in a climate of extremes creates a unique identity for a unit. In Alaska, the influence of the Arctic shapes military operations in a region with temperatures ranging from a sweltering 90 degrees in the summer, with more than 24 hours of sunshine (are you saying that the sun does not down in a 24 hour period at times?), to minus 65 degrees in the winter, with a polar night that lasts for 66 days at its farthest northern point.
While addressing the impetus behind the change in a letter to the command, Eifler explained that because the environment shapes the mission of forces in Alaska it is necessary for America’s Arctic Warriors to carve out an identity all their own.
Presently, there is not one distinguishing unit patch for all of USARAK. Its two major brigades now wear the well-known “Tropic Lightning” patch tied to Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, while its other subordinate units wear a hodgepodge of shoulder sleeve insignias.
What will change look like?
The 11th Airborne Division patch features a winged, red disc with the number 11 in white on a blue shield. It will be topped by the Airborne and Arctic tabs. According to The Institute of Heraldry, the red, white and blue represent the national colors, and the wings represent the airborne mission.
“Angels”, who fought during the New Guinea, Southern Philippines and Luzon campaigns of World War II, jumped into some of the same locations that USARAK operates and trains in today.
Eifler and other Army leaders believe unifying units in Alaska under the 11th Airborne Division, a unit with a similar but unique mission, geostrategic importance and a spirit of innovation, will help bring a sense of belonging and identity. The move connects the past and present with a nod to the future.
“Today is the dawn of a new history to be written and battles to be won,” Eifler told future Angels in his written address. “It will be our sacred honor to uphold the values, grit and proud history of the 11th Airborne Division and our duty to continue this great lineage!”