By Sheryl Nix, Fort Wainwright PAOSeptember 16, 2010
Editor's Note: This week's Alaska Post continues a newcomer series designed to highlight Soldier and family member newcomer experiences as they settle into life here, as well as resources available to help them. Next week's Alaska Post will conclude the newcomer series and feature specific programs and agencies targeting those new to Fort Wainwright and the information they need as they prepare for winter and life in Alaska. Are you a newcomer, sponsor or someone who works with newcomers' We would like to hear from you. Contact Sheryl Nix at email@example.com or 353-6776 to share newcomer experiences.
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Being new to an installation can be a tough adjustment. Being new to the Army can be even tougher. So being a new Soldier or family member arriving at Fort Wainwright, far from home, as a first real duty station can be intimidating. But for some it can be an adventure.
Erin Carius, wife of 2nd Lt. Brandon Carius, C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, met her husband in college in Connecticut and never dreamed at the time that they would one day be an Army family living in Alaska.
"Our biggest surprise was just how far it is," she said. "It doesn't look that far on the map." Navigating the 4,000 miles from Fort Benning, Ga., to Fort Wainwright was the beginning of an adventure for the couple who have been married less than 18 months and are also expecting their first baby in a few weeks.
"We found out we were coming here before we were married," Carius said. "We were just excited to just be coming here. We thought when else would we ever be able to move to Alaska."
Having grown up in Minnesota, Carius is not terrified about the winter. "I'm just mostly curious to see what it's like," she said.
Some of her top concerns after arriving were housing, preparing their vehicles for winter and meeting people. They tackled the winterization process for their vehicles and after weeks in lodging, were able to get on-post housing. "The people at the Housing Office were great," she said. "They really tried to help us."
Carius said the friends she has made through her husband's unit have also helped her get plugged in and meet people. "My advice is to get involved with your FRG," she said.
Even before they had housing, the new couple got involved in community events like this summer's Relay for Life fundraiser for cancer research. She said getting involved is a key element to enjoying your time somewhere. "I really think you need to have a positive attitude because it really affects your experience," she said.
Maintaining a newcomer mindset
After years of relocating and starting fresh in new locations, Diane Wood, wife of Col. Todd Wood, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division commander, believes that getting plugged in at a new installation is the answer for newcomers. Being new to an installation does not have to mean being lost and alone, she said. Getting connected can mean attending an FRG meeting, volunteering in an organization, finding a job, or even just meeting neighbors.
"While FRGs and units are important in the adjustment period, people can reach out to others to make a difference," she explained. "Welcoming families is not just up to one individual, but a community and neighborhood can extend a friendly hand, smile and conversation and offer assistance. I believe everyone plays a very important role in that."
Although Wood and her family arrived here last year, her role as the 1-25th SBCT senior FRG advisor keeps her focus on newcomers. "The key areas of focus for families are housing, education, spouse employment, where to worship, medical appointments, school physicals and immunizations, car issues - winterizing, registration and changing over to Alaska driver's licenses," she said. "Then they can look at 'what does this post have to offer to fulfill the adventure of living in Alaska.'"
Wood recommended the newcomer orientations offered every month and the "Welcome to Winter" classes that began this week to help newcomers make that initial adjustment to their new surroundings.
"There's a lot of good info there," she said. "Knowledge is power. I think the post does a wonderful job of informing (us) about all the events going on."
Living in Alaska "has its challenges, but if you come in with a mindset to (find) the opportunities to enjoy Alaska you will enjoy your time here," she said. "Not many people get to live here and experience it."
She and her family have been amazed at the support and help from the community on and around Fort Wainwright, even before they arrived. Her twin sons are students at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
"The university was very helpful and welcoming. En route they were calling us and signing my kids up for classes. I've never experienced any college experience where I had an administration office call me and walk me through it," she said.
After addressing the immediate concerns of housing, getting automobiles prepared for the cold and proper clothing and equipment, Wood said newcomers should look at what they want to experience while they are here.
In addition to working and volunteering, she developed a new hobby - making stained glass projects. "My husband is into hunting and fishing so I said, 'okay, what am I going to do''"
Regardless of how long Soldiers or families have been here, Wood said it is important to be mindful of those just arriving. She does this in her neighborhood by making homemade chocolate chip cookies for new neighbors. "They are very yummy," she said. "Plus, it's a great ice breaker and way to make introductions and to see if they need anything."
Ditching the Lower 48 expectations
Sgt. 1st Class Joanne Blatchley, Reserve Component career counselor, arrived here June 2 from the Army Reserve Center in Riverside, Calif., but she knew Fort Wainwright would be a completely new experience for her even before she arrived.
Checking Internet sites for housing, shopping and other options, Blatchley noticed one thing right away - the prices.
"The hardest thing is that you have Lower 48 expectations and then you come up here and you cannot realistically apply your Lower 48 expectations up here and expect it to happen. It's not feasible," she said. "What is considered an okay house or apartment here is charged what would be a luxury rate in the Lower 48. There is a big difference in cost definitely."
Having a sponsor made the transition easier for the active Guard reservist, geographically separated from her husband.
"He helped me with answering the questions, what do I need to look for, stay away from, etc.," she said.
He also offered to go look at places she was thinking about renting and ensured that she thought to look for places that have running water.
She plans to return the favor and help sponsor other newcomers coming into her unit. "I always look at the sponsorship thing as what would I expect. What info would I need," she said. "This is how it should work in the military. It's a teach-and-train type of thing. You want that helpfulness to continue on. You don't want the unhelpfulness to continue on. That's not going to help anyone."
Blatchley knows being a newcomer is difficult and she is concerned about young Soldiers and families who never attend on-post events or get off post to see the community. "You can have a program that does things all the time, but if that person doesn't get out to it, then that program is not helping that individual," she explained. "It's all personal outlook and how you view it."
She has chosen to make Alaska an adventure and do and see as much as she can. She reads the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation "Bear" each month and participated in community races and events to get to know her community this summer and also plans to volunteer in the community at the Fairbanks Rescue Mission and the Fairbanks Community Food Bank."You make home wherever you are. You adjust. You adapt," she said. "I think it's just your outlook. If you become a recluse; you stay inside all the time, it's probably not going to be a positive experience for you."