BETHEL, Alaska -- U.S. Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Sara McPherson, the decontamination NCO and acting noncommissioned officer in charge with the 12th Civil Support Team (CST), New Hampshire National Guard, set up a sick call for native Alaskans to seek medical treatment in Bethel Feb. 29 during exercise Arctic Eagle 2020.
Near-whiteout conditions forced the cancelation of the CST exercise scheduled Feb. 29-March 1. However, even in bad weather, McPherson and 29 other Alaska National Guard (AKNG), Alaska State Defense Force (ASDF), and 12th CST personnel continued their domestic operations mission to support the people of Bethel.
"We had to adjust fire due to inclement weather," McPherson said. "A lot of our berms [decontamination equipment] were extremely icy. We had to game-plan in our head, 'It's super slippery, how do we mitigate that for safety.' "
Undeterred by the weather, the CST conducted critical site surveys of the armory, port, water treatment facility and grocery store. Traveling throughout Bethel in a small unit support vehicle (SUSV) provided the opportunity to test cold-weather, decontamination and communications equipment in subzero temperatures. The team also helped the armory manager fix his Humvee after it was damaged plowing snow.
"We didn't get to do the key leader meeting," McPherson said. "But we weren't miserable. The commander got us pizza. We watched a movie together. It wasn't awful. We're still going to do cold-weather training outside. We're still building the comradery and our bond."
Alaskan weather can be unpredictable. Winter temperatures can rapidly drop below -40 degrees. In Bethel, it is not uncommon for a blizzard to blow through unexpectedly, isolating the town.
To boost morale, Alaskan State Defense Force Col. John James took personnel on a tour of the area in a SUSV. The town of Bethel has no roads leading in or out. Individuals have to arrive by plane or boat. In winter, when the river freezes and boating become impossible, residents and military personnel use the frozen waters as a sort of improvised highway.
Training alongside AKNG and ASDF personnel provided McPherson and the rest of 12 CST the opportunity to test new equipment and refine sick-call and decontamination procedures while developing invaluable relationships.
"We're trying to utilize as much time as we can here while we're in Alaska," said Lt. Col. Brian Fernandes, 12th CST commander. "This is an opportunity that many people don't get. Even if they get a chance to go to Alaska, they're on a cruise ship or coming on vacation, so doing true arctic training in Alaska with native Alaskans is a once-in-a-lifetime chance."