CAMP DENALI - Young men sprawl in the folding chairs lined up in front of the massive American flag on one wall of the Alaska National Guard Armory on Aug. 28. They are straddling one of those "before" and "after" moments, that momentary pause when life-changing events happen. This is the last stop before the 41 of them climb onto the bus for the airport and then take a plane to Fort Benning for basic training.
They come from all over the state, from tiny Bush villages with hard-to-pronounce names and the state's big cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. One trio of friends from Juneau joined together. Another guy is from Philadelphia - he was visiting relatives in Alaska, liked what he saw and decided to join the Army Guard here instead of going back home to join the regular Army.
What's different about this group of basic-bound men is they are staying together as a unit - a "buddy patrol" - through basic and advanced infantry training.
"They will all stay in the same company," said Sgt. Maj. Craig Lisconbee with Army Guard Recruiting and Retention. "They'll be training together and when they return, they will all be in the 207th Infantry Group."
The Guard has found the buddy patrol system useful in helping recruits stick it out through training, Lisconbee said. Many of those in the group from remote villages are heading out of state for the first time in their lives. Moving through training as a group significantly reduces the number of people who drop out.
"It's a great support system. When you are by yourself in basic, it's a lot easier to give up and quit. When you are part of a group, you have the kind of camaraderie that bridges tough going," he said.
One reason the group is leaving now, instead of in the beginning of the summer when most buddy patrols ship out, is the difficulty some Alaskans have with adapting to the hot, humid weather of Georgia, Lisconbee said. The weather, on top of all the other changes in their lives, is just too much of a culture shock.
"Besides," he said grinning, "who wants to leave Alaska in the summertime?"
Several main themes seem to motivate the recruits to join the Guard. Kenneth Napoka, 22, from Tuluksak, joined for fun. Thomas Nicholas, 18, from Kasigliuk, signed up so he could get money for college. George Patrick, 24, from Newtok, wants to be a soldier "to protect and serve my country." For William Arnold, 19, the first man in the alphabetically arranged line of troops, is looking for "a chance to make it," something hard to find in his native Philadelphia.
Even the three Juneau pals who joined together have different reasons for joining: Mike Mercer, 19, is patriotic; Anthony Jackson, 18, needs money for college; Kalei Curbow, 18, wants to make his family proud of him. Anthony D. Manacio IV, also came from Juneau.
Since Sept. 11, the number of people joining the Army Guard is up, according to the commander of the 207th, Brig. Gen. Craig Christensen. The unit has signed up 283 recruits this year. Another effect of the terrorist attack has been an increase in the attendance.
"Usually we have between 10 and 11 percent of people not showing up for drill weekends," he said. "There's a marked increase in the number of troops showing up. The absentee rate is now down to around 4.8 percent. That's a significant improvement.
The recruits hustle into formation and yell their self-created unit motto: "First to fight. Last to fall. Mess with us, we'll drop you all." The words are almost indistinguishable but there's no missing the heartfelt sentiment.
They line up get their plane tickets and brown bag dinners for the flight.
Master Sgt. Peter Jensen stands at one end 6-foot registration table taking care of last minute details. Jensen is the man who's organized this buddy patrol and shepherded the men through all the required paperwork and red tape.
"We started in March of this year," he said. Medical checkups, current IDs - men from remote villages have been known to show with tribal ID cards issued when they were 3 or 4 years old. Jensen contacted the Guard administration in Washington to reserve space at Ft. Benning for more than 40 recruits. As the final part of his buddy patrol duty, Jensen accompanies the new troops to Benning and helps with last-minute paperwork.
At the end of the week, on Aug. 30, the men move down range where the drill sergeants take over.
However, the Guard leadership still plans to maintain a watch on the unit.
Christensen plans a trip to check on them in the first part of September and other officers and NCOs expect to visit Georgia before the training completion date of Dec. 13.
Toni Massari McPherson is editor of Alaska Military Weekly, a sister newspaper of the Juneau Empire.