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Rural Engagement Initiative reaches out to Sitka

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Rural Engagement Initiative

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Ekeland, Alaska Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention section chief, speaks to a possible Army National Guard applicant Oct. 17, 2017, about educational benefits at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, Sitka, Alaska. The Alaska Army National Guard offers tuition assistance for state postsecondary institutions.

To the students at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, the Alaska Army National Guard’s tracked Small Unit Support Vehicle may as well have been the Millennium Falcon.

Perched in the parking lot strategically located between buildings, students couldn’t help but stop and gawk at the odd-looking vehicle. Alaska Army National Guard recruiters Sgt. 1st Class Justin Mullenix and Sgt. 1st Class Jason Ekeland were all too happy to let the teenagers crawl all over the green machine.

Because the public boarding school represents communities across Alaska, the recruiting effort at Mt. Edgecumbe served as a microcosm for the Alaska National Guard’s effort – called the Rural Engagement Initiative – to reach possible recruits in remote areas.

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“The Rural Engagement Initiative covers about 85 percent of Alaska, so anything that is off of the road system – anything that is not Anchorage, Juneau or Fairbanks,” Ekeland said. “That territory falls under the Rural Engagement Initiative.

“It’s a good way for us to get out into the community, meet with local members and veterans, and as members of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, find new people for the Army National Guard.”

Ekeland acknowledged the magnitude of the opportunity presented by reaching such a diverse student body.

“The students at Mt. Edgecumbe represent about 127 different communities throughout the state of Alaska – everyone down to Ketchikan all the way up to Barrow,” he said. “The students represent the total population of Alaska, and if we want to reach out into those rural communities, Mt. Edgecumbe is the perfect place to jump in and meet those prospective new Soldiers.”

Many of the students who spoke with Ekeland said they had good grades and wanted to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. Though they are counting on scholarships, most didn’t know how they were going to pay for college.

Ekeland spoke to them about how the National Guard has 100 percent tuition assistance for students attending state schools such as the universities at Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, as well as their satellite campuses across rural Alaska.

With 17 armories in rural locations, Mullenix said the Alaska Army National Guard is looking to revitalize the facilities as hubs for Guard service, training and response to the needs of their surrounding communities.

“These armories mean a lot to the communities,” Mullenix said. “They’re used as community centers whenever disaster strikes, and we’re there to support them. Having that facility and Soldiers embedded in the communities really give them a sense of security that we’re there to help in a time of need.”

The pastoral town of Sitka rests on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. A miniature archipelago of small islands peppered off the shore of the town ascend out of and plunge into the ocean and recall the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar.

Mullenix grew up and Sitka and said he plans to retire there. He said his visit afforded him the chance to share the things he has enjoyed about Army life.

“We want to provide the opportunities and benefits of military service to all of the residents of Alaska,” he said. “Giving the same opportunities I had to be successful and be a Soldier serving in my country and my state, it really makes me proud.”


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