A big first day: PVT Adam Andrew, a Mt Edgecumbe High School student from Napakiak. meets Major General Hummel on his very first paid day of drill. Despite numerous deployments both in the US and abroad, advocates say the National Guard is “the best deal on the block” for some students to access opportunities unavailable elsewhere. (Alaska National Guard photo/Bianca Carpeneti)

Years of ongoing international deployments — and even emergencies around the US — are drawing down the energy and manpower of the Alaska National Guard.

Major General Laurie Hummel would like to change that.

Hummel and her staff from the Guard and the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs — where she also serves as commissioner — were in Sitka recently (September 27, 28) as part of a new rural engagement initiative.

Downloadable audio.

Except for all the soldiers in fatigues delivering crisp “Yes ma’am’s and No ma’am’s” in her vicinity, you wouldn’t guess that the 57-year old woman in jeans and a blue cardigan sweater was a two-star general.

The US has been deploying troops to conflicts overseas for most all of the second half of Laurie Hummel’s career in the Army. She says that the Army, the National Guard, and the Reserves all missed their recruiting goals this year.

And she gets it.

“I understand,” Hummel said. “I’m a parent, and I understand that there are concerns from the perspective of deployments. But I would also say that this is what makes our young people stronger, more resilient, and more adept to face those challenges that we all have through our years.”

While elements of the National Guard have been deployed abroad, Hummel says that the organization’s role as “America’s Hometown Guardian” hasn’t diminished.

She says serving within US borders remains a huge part of being in the Guard.

“Within the last year we have sent Army Guard and Air Guard personnel to Texas, to Louisiana, to Florida, to Puerto Rico, to the Virgin Islands, to North Carolina and to South Carolina, in order to assist with search and rescue and other types of hurricane recovery,” said Hummel, reciting a litany of deployments. “And so not only do we get to guard our hometowns and come to their aid, but we’re also available for emergency management assistance compacts to other states as well. And everybody comes back with a sense of satisfaction and a smile on their face because they helped a neighbor — whether that neighbor was across the street or across the continent.”

According to Hummel, no other military branch has seen the dip in recruitment that the Army and Guard have this year. Traveling to Sitka with Hummel was Verdie Bowen, the director of the state Office of Veterans Affairs. Bowen said that he’s starting to see two generations of veterans — parents and children — come through his office who have served in the same conflict.

“And I understand being weary,” said Bowen. “Most of the time it’s because of the number of deployments that our troops are facing. They’re starting to wear down just a bit. But I don’t think that negates anything that the Guard has to offer. I believe that the National Guard is probably the best thing on the block for Alaskan kids — being an Alaskan kid myself — it will provide them skill sets that they’ve never seen or ever could have had access to.”

Bowen says his job is to connect veterans with benefits before, during, and after their service. His office also oversees a group of volunteers who serve as Tribal Veterans Representatives. In Sitka, that role is filled by George Bennett, Sr., whom Bowen knows as a brother.

“I’m a member of George’s tribe,” said Bowen. “I’m a Raven, my name is Aday Say Ish (Takdaintaan Clan of the Raven Moiety, clan house Fresh Water Mark Sockeye), and it’s sort of fortuitous because it means ‘guardian father.’ That’s what I do in my job.”

Bowen referred to the state Office of Veterans Affairs and the National Guard as “promise keepers,” who would ensure that service members receive the benefits they’ve earned.

Veterans issues and recruitment — both into the Alaska National Guard and into the state defense force — are at the core of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’ rural engagement initiative, along with a renewed commitment to Southeast Alaska. Major General Hummel used her Sitka visit to announce that she’s placing a full-time recruiter in Sitka, who will join two already in Juneau. She’s also maintaining armories in Sitka, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Klawock.

But Hummel added that restoring the robustness of the Alaska National Guard would take effort.

“We need everybody’s help,” said Hummel. “We need veterans to talk about their experiences, and to mentor young people, and to help keep them on the right path. We need influencers like parents and teachers to talk about community service, and how important it is to have a sense of being bigger than oneself. And we need our young people to have an open mind, come and talk to the recruiter, and make their own decision as to whether service in the military is something that is right for them.”

And if a student decides that the military is the right choice, the Major General in the blue cardigan has three words of advice: “Stay fit, stay out of trouble, and graduate from high school.”