BETHEL, Alaska — Soldiers with Bison Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, recently demonstrated readiness and resilience during cold weather training in Bethel Feb. 2-4, 2024.
This training marked a significant reunion for the Alaska Army National Guard infantry unit in Bethel, emphasizing the city’s importance as a training ground that challenges Soldiers to adapt and excel in real-world scenarios.
Alaska Army Guard 1st Lt. Troy Irish, Bison Company’s rear detachment commander, said the rugged terrain and extreme weather in Western Alaska provided an ideal testing ground for his Soldiers preparing for Arctic warfare. Bethel, situated along the Kuskokwim River around 340 miles west of Anchorage, set the scene for the training with its snow-covered landscape of tundra marshes and frozen lakes and streams.
“It’s just you, your rucksack, and the terrain,” said Irish, reflecting on the solitude of the tundra. “During our snowshoe ruck, I wasn’t initially sure about my gear — polypro, waffle tops and [soft shell jacket] — but trusted my noncommissioned officers. Wearing the right gear broke the wind, and I maintained a comfortable temperature, crucial in preventing freezing due to precipitation or sweat.”
For three days, members of the infantry unit rigorously tested their field-craft skills, individual movement over arctic terrain, and arctic transportation proficiency.
The Guardsmen operated small unit support vehicles and slept in the snow. They insulated themselves in temperatures ranging from -10 to -15 degress, equipped with the patrol sleeping bag, intermediate cold weather bag and waterproof bivy cover.
“The sleep systems are rated to a certain negative temperature, and we were nearing that overnight,” said Irish. “So, there were a lot of Soldiers that were kind of cold. But nobody was injured. Nobody was hypothermic.”
The training regimen also included assembling and using the Ahkio Group — a sled with an arctic 10-man tent and other squad cold-weather supplies.
“We’ve talked about them a lot, we’ve done a lot of prep work for them, but I’ve never really been able to truck them out into the field and use them before,” said Spc. Luke Barnes, an infantryman who joined the AKARNG three years ago.
The company completed a 5-kilometer snowshoe ruck march, pulling the Ahkio group with them.
Barnes said that while he isn’t a noncommissioned officer yet, he enjoyed the added responsibility of taking care of and leading others.
The unit’s last consolidated training in the area coincided with the 2018 Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race. Training focus shifted as more than 150 Guardsmen from the 1-297th deployed to Kosovo from 2019-2020. Following a month-long rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana last summer, approximately 100 Bison Company Guardsmen deployed to Kuwait in November as part of Operation Spartan Shield.
The primary training objective in Bethel was to reacquaint themselves with arctic conditions.