U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense visits Alaska soldiers

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense visits Alaska soldiers
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 3:12 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks visited Interior Alaska on Monday, May 24, to discuss with local soldiers the challenges they face.

“We wanted to understand what are some of those economic stressors. What are some of the quality of life issues that they encounter, and mental and behavioral health challenges that they may be facing,” Hicks explained.

This trip comes as part of a campaign by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called “Taking Care of People.” Hicks called it “a major initiative for the Department of Defense.”

“Coming to Alaska is really gathering information that the folks here in Alaska, our servicemembers, are feeling here, bringing that in and making sure we understand how the policies that we’re undertaking in Washington affect the population that we have here,” she said.

Hicks’ goal was to hear from the soldiers serving in Alaska about life on base in the 49th state. “It’s, of course, a remote, austere environment where our servicemembers are feeling many of the same pressures that our force feels throughout, but maybe in a little more unique way,” said Hicks.

In the morning, the Deputy Secretary of Defense traveled to Eielson Air Force Base, followed by Fort Wainwright.

There, she toured barracks 3415, speaking with enlisted soldiers about life in Alaska. Hicks said it was “incredibly helpful to hear first-hand from those servicemembers about their experiences and their family members’ experiences, and how it affects their ability to be focused on mission every day.”

Hicks was then given a walkthrough of both old and new housing on base, learning the stress Alaska’s winters can put on the structures. “On post, the issue is really around the age of the barracks and the need to turn over the barracks to have newer facilities. There also needs to be enough housing for our servicemembers,” she said.

Additionally, the Deputy Secretary hosted a roundtable with enlisted soldiers at Bassett Army Community Hospital. Before the conversation began, she explained, “We want to learn more, here in Alaska in particular, about the challenges that you face, that your families face, and maybe even, once in awhile, what’s going right.”

“To make sure we can defend the nation, we need to ensure that you have the support you need, that your families have the support you need,” Hicks added.

Stressors expressed to the Deputy Secretary include child care, spousal employment, and housing. Ultimately, the Department of Defense aims to improve quality of life for soldiers. She said, “Many of them are far away from home and new to the unique climate and conditions of Alaska. Those pressures, combined with financial or family stressors, can contribute to depression, unhealthy behaviors, and suicide.”

Hicks said she plans to use the information and feedback from her trip to inform department policy on mental and behavioral health, food security, and other issues.

Her day in the Interior ended with a visit to the Permafrost Research Tunnel.

“I want to express my appreciation to Alaska communities like Fairbanks for the outsized role that you play in supporting our servicemembers, their families, and our vital national security missions.”

Hicks next traveled to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.