WASHINGTON – After recent visits to the state, Army senior leaders are announcing significant actions to improve the quality of life of Soldiers in Alaska by bolstering behavioral health resources and adding new options for health, fitness and recreation in a region of strategic importance to the nation’s defense.
In April, Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth traveled to Alaska, a state that is critical to homeland defense and Arctic dominance, to engage with Army leaders and Soldiers on readiness, quality-of-life issues and suicide prevention. The Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. James McConville, is scheduled to visit Alaska-based units and Soldiers in June.
Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Joseph M. Martin and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston traveled to Alaska in February to meet with Soldiers, family members and leaders. Afterward, Martin led a Headquarters, Department of the Army effort to provide U.S. Army Alaska with additional support and resources to curtail rates of harmful behaviors and ensure that Soldiers and family members thrive.
“In my visits to Joint Base Richardson and Fort Wainwright earlier this year, leaders, Soldiers, and their families shared what immediate resources they need in Alaska to care for their mental health and help improve the quality of life for their family members,” said Wormuth. “As a first step, the U.S. Army is providing a surge of behavioral health professionals this summer to shorten mental health appointment wait times for our Soldiers. We’re also expanding indoor and outdoor recreation opportunities for our Soldiers and their families throughout the year. We’ve heard the concerns of our Soldiers and we will do everything we can to create an environment in which our Soldiers and families in Alaska can thrive.”
Increased behavioral health support
To address the current shortage of behavioral health providers in Alaska, the Army and the Defense Health Agency are hiring for 17 new or open positions, with the Department of Defense’s Military Community and Family Policy supporting with additional military and family life counselors to provide non-medical services for Alaskan brigades and battalions.
In addition, in order to immediately provide expanded capacity for counseling services and significantly reduce wait times, a temporary surge of behavioral health professionals and chaplains trained in pastoral care counseling are arriving at Alaska installations.
Two licensed behavioral health professionals are now providing 56 more appointments per week and, in coordination with the Army Reserve, three additional licensed behavioral health professionals have been mobilized and will be in Alaska for a minimum of six months.
They will be joined in June by a surge of eight military and family life counselors, who will temporarily support “Mission 100,” a U.S. Army Alaska-directed program that provides every Soldier in Alaska an annual counseling session with a licensed non-medical counseling provider.
“Mission 100 is a campaign to connect 100% of our Soldiers – leaders connected with Soldiers and Soldiers connected with each other,” said Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of U.S. Army Alaska.
During their 90-day rotations, the eight counselors will see 48 Soldiers per day for one-hour sessions.
Additionally, the Army is surging 19 chaplains and four religious support assistants in six-month increments over the next three years to increase opportunities for pastoral care counseling at behavioral health clinics and in-and-out-processing centers on Alaska-based installations. The chaplains, who have begun arriving in Alaska, will provide spiritually integrated therapy for marriage, family, grief, trauma and stress; eight will directly support Mission 100.
Together, the surge capacity will more than double U.S. Army Alaska’s behavioral health and counseling capability.
More resources for Soldiers in Alaska
In addition to surging behavioral health services, the Army is expanding morale, welfare and recreation activities in Alaska. For example, the Army is revising fitness center policies for Soldiers and their dependents, allowing teens and their parents to take part in independent exercise activities while increasing access to Alaskan ski facilities in the coldest weather.
Beginning in June, the Army will provide loaner furniture to newly arrived families to help them settle comfortably into their Alaskan homes while waiting for their household goods to arrive. Increased funding for the Fort Wainwright shuttle bus will allow for expanded routes and service, giving Soldiers residing in barracks transportation to their units, physical fitness areas and the dining facility.
“We’re listening,” Martin said. “As the needs of our Soldiers and families evolve, our quality-of-life investments must continuously evolve to meet those needs. We know that quality-of-life initiatives alone won’t prevent suicides, but combined with a positive command climate, we can create an ecosystem of protective factors aimed at preventing catastrophes before they occur. We’re addressing several quality-of-life concerns for Soldiers and families stationed in Alaska. We still have a lot of work to do – not only in Alaska, but across the Army. Our goal is zero suicides. Not zero today or tomorrow, but every single day. It’s a battle we must continue to fight daily through engaged leaders at every echelon.”
While securing the Arctic region is vital to national defense, the Alaskan environment includes extremely low temperatures, remote areas, long periods of darkness and extended daylight, and rapidly changing weather patterns. In recognition of those challenges, the Army previously instituted Remote and Austere Condition Assignment Incentive Pay for Soldiers in Alaska. Since March 2020, more than 1,500 Soldiers in Alaska have received a total of $3.2 million to help them to prepare and outfit themselves, their family members and their vehicles for the harsh Alaskan environment.
While incentive pay is available to Soldiers with or without dependents, Soldiers with dependents may also receive a dislocation allowance when moving to Alaska. In addition, Soldiers assigned to Alaska receive a non-taxable overseas cost-of-living allowance to offset the higher prices of non-housing goods and services.
Because high travel costs to and from Alaska can prevent Soldiers and their families from visiting loved ones, Army Emergency Relief now provides $500 loans to single Soldiers and $1,000 loans to families to defray airfare costs for non-emergency travel. These loans are authorized for travel to locations throughout the United States, U.S. territories and overseas locations that are the homes of record of a Soldier or spouse.
“Connecting Soldiers with the resources they need doesn’t happen without engaged leadership,” said Grinston. “All of these programs and initiatives are great, and leaders have to understand how to use them to improve team cohesion. That cohesion and trust serves as the foundation for building highly trained, disciplined, and mentally, socially and physically fit Soldiers.”
The “Option 20” accessions program, initiated in June 2021, allows new Soldiers to select Alaska as their first duty station. To date, 844 Soldiers have volunteered to serve there, with 84 already on the ground. Additionally, Human Resources Command has approved over 390 Soldier requests to extend their stay in Alaska rather than transition to other assignments.
The Army has a robust presence in Alaska, with approximately 11,600 active-duty Soldiers at Fort Greely, Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. In addition, the U.S. Army Reserve employs nearly 350 Soldiers in Alaska and another 1,600 Soldiers serve in the Alaska Army National Guard. U.S. Army Alaska is a subordinate command of U.S. Army Pacific, the Army component to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
On June 6, the Army will re-designate U.S. Army Alaska and two Alaska-based brigade combat teams as the 11th Airborne Division Headquarters and the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams, 11th Airborne Division. While not a force structure change, the activation of the 11th Airborne Division will create a shared mission identity for Soldiers stationed in Alaska and help ensure that they are properly trained and equipped for the Arctic environment.