Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, commander of the Alaska National Guard and commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, visited Kodiak and Old Harbor on Monday and Tuesday.
The trip was part of a new effort to establish Kodiak as a regional hub of the Alaska National Guard, and strengthen Saxe’s ties with Alaska’s rural communities, according to a statement from Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, director of public affairs for the Alaska National Guard.
“The main reason I came is because we want to establish Kodiak as a regional hub,” Saxe said, adding that Kodiak’s sizable runway and larger population make it a natural hub to use for natural disaster response in the region.
“So it’s a place I can get my forces into should there be a natural disaster,” he said. “I want my pilots to be familiar with flying in here.”
This was Saxe’s first visit to Kodiak since he assumed his role last year. The visit to Kodiak included meetings with borough and Native leaders, a tour of the Coast Guard base and the Pacific Spaceport Complex - Alaska, and a promotion ceremony for Kodiak Guardsmen.
The visit to Kodiak, a fifth site visit in support of the new initiative, included representatives in his group from the state office of Veterans Affairs, the Guard’s tribal liaison, members of the joint staff and the Alaska State Defense Force.
As part of Saxe’s effort to grow rural operations in Alaska, he has visited Bethel, Kwethluk, Napaskiak and Galena, and intends to visit Nome and Utqiagvik. He said he hopes to establish a lasting presence in Kodiak, and continue making regular visits to the island and other regional hubs across the state.
“This isn’t just the Guard coming in, a flash and then we’re gone. We’re coming here to establish those long-term relationships,” he said. “You never want to introduce yourself in a crisis.”
The trip’s focus was on ensuring emergency readiness in the case of damage caused by an earthquake or tsunami. Saxe said emergency response is usually headed by local leaders, but in extreme situations that require the Guard’s involvement, a dual status commander would be appointed — usually a one-star general — to bring together federal and state forces.
The move to work with rural communities is part of the Guard’s decision to switch from focusing on federal to state operations. According to Saxe, the decision came as a result of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Anchorage in November 2018, which prompted an increased focus on emergency preparedness across the state.
“This is something that’s been weighing on me for a long time,” he said. “I just firmly believe the Guard is here for all of Alaska. If something bad happens, you’re going to be calling on the Guard, and rightly so. We are here to serve you and we’re going to be ready for that.”
The National Guard is working with the Red Cross to pre-position emergency supplies across the state, so that communities are better equipped to address natural disasters. Supplies such as blankets, food and medicine will be stored in the Kodiak Armory.
Saxe’s team is working with the Kodiak Island Borough to establish which emergency supplies are most needed.
“So this really is a team effort,” Saxe said. “The last thing I want to do is just impose and give something that’s not wanted or needed. I want to give things that are both wanted and needed.”
During his visit to Old Harbor, Saxe said he encountered confusion about where the tsunami safety line is.
“I was surprised that there’s not a huge agreed upon level for tsunami warning,” he said. “We were talking to some of the leaders out there and they were saying there are entire portions of the town that are underneath the current tsunami line.”
Another reason for Saxe’s visit is to increase the National Guard presence in Kodiak.
“Years ago, we had a pretty sizable presence. And I’d like to get back to that. But the critical part of that is to be able to recruit,” he said.
Currently, only 10 Kodiak residents are members of the National Guard. Saxe hopes to bring that number up to 50, but he recognizes that process will take time. Ideally, he said, he would like to increase the Guard’s membership by 10 members each year.
“I know that’s sizable, but I think we can do it,” he said.
Saxe met with Superintendent Larry LeDoux to discuss recruiting Guard members from Kodiak High School.
In the future, Saxe said he would be open to having a formal National Guard detachment in Kodiak, which would require a minimum of 15 locally based troops. As of now, Guard members must travel to Anchorage for regular training, but a detachment would allow training to take place in Kodiak.