Close to 12,000 soldiers from Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska united under one flag as the 11th Airborne Division was reactivated; it’s the first time the Army has activated an airborne division in over 70 years. Division Command Sgt. Maj. Vern Daley said becoming a division allows those assigned to specialize in operating in an environment unique to Alaska’s terrain in support of the Army’s 2021 Arctic Strategy.
“We were ready to go wherever we needed to go, and most of the time that was to Iraq or Afghanistan – we were training for other mission sets, but in the cold,” Daley explained. “Now, we’re not only in the environment, but we must train to be dominant in that environment.”
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The division will be headquartered at JBER, a joint installation shared with the Air Force, and is geographically separated from its split-based counterparts at Ft. Wainwright, located more than 350 miles north. The Army’s Arctic Strategy has five lines of effort: 1. To improve the Arctic capability. 2. To compete in the Arctic and globally. 3. Defend the Far North in crisis and conflict. 4. Build Arctic multi-domain operations. 5. Project power across the Arctic.
The 11th Airborne has a long legacy beginning in North Carolina during WWII. The division has been reactivated and deactivated several times as its stations moved from North Carolina to Japan and then to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In 1963, the U.S. Army Alaska said the division became the “11th Air Assault Division (Test), to develop and refine air assault tactics and equipment for a new helicopter-borne Army.” It was deactivated again in 1965 until its recent reactivation when Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, 11th Airborne Division commander, said is “long overdue.”
“We’ve been expected to act and do things like a division, but have never been resourced to be one,” Eifler said. “The Arctic wasn’t seen as an essential task, so we didn’t have a lot of design for going into cold weather, or extreme cold weather equipment. [Now], the Chief of Staff of the Army has charged us to be the innovators on all things extreme cold weather and mountainous terrain.”
A restructure brings the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team and the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team – formerly of the 25th Infantry Division headquartered in Hawaii – into the 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Teams of the 11th Airborne, respectively. The redesignation does not change the units’ mobility and readiness ability to respond to their areas of responsibility in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command region in a matter of hours; it enables their ability. The unit is phasing out equipment like the Stryker ADAPT Platform, which isn’t ideal for operations in extreme cold weather, and acquiring other equipment like Cold Weather, All-Terrain Vehicles (CATVs) to better enable mobilization throughout the terrain.
Eifler added that restructuring Alaskan forces requires returning to an “Arctic ethos,” dating back to the time of Alaska’s admittance into the Union in 1959. The National Park Service notes Alaska that was called the “Guardian of the North” and “Top Cover for America” during the Cold War because of its strategic location.
“The U.S. military realized Alaska’s strategic value during the era’s early years,” they said in an article for their Teaching with Historic Places program. “The shortest and most likely route of attack from the Soviet Union was through Alaska.”
In addition to the strategic benefits, Col. Jody Shouse, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) commander, said Alaska soldiers who wore different patches on their uniforms can now show their shared mission identity under one umbrella as a larger team. 11th Airborne soldiers wear a distinguishable blue patch with a red and white emblem and angel wings to symbolize their call sign, “Angels.” Shouse said this is a great time to be in Alaska.
“I firmly believe the Army is investing heavily in the future of Alaska – and it’s not something that changes and happens overnight,” he explained. “I think the quality of life is really good here, but the Army is doing what it needs to to make it better for our families. Because Alaska is a priority because of its location and where we are in relation to the lower 48, the Army is investing quite a bit into the state and the organizations here.”
Earlier this year, Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth visited soldiers and leaders in Alaska and called for an increase in behavioral health services accessible to service members and their families.
“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,” Wormuth said. “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.”
Leaders also sought to increase families’ ease of transition to Alaska by providing loaner furniture until their household goods arrive. Morale, Welfare, and Recreation services have also expanded access to fitness centers for teens and their parents, with increased access to Alaskan ski facilities in the coldest weather.
Since 2021, the Army has also allowed new soldiers to choose Alaska as a first duty station. According to the May 2022 article, “844 soldiers have volunteered to serve there, with 84 already on the ground. Human Resources Command has also approved over 390 soldier requests to extend their stay in Alaska rather than transition to other assignments.”Read comments