Classmates serve with counselor in Alaska Guard unit

Wrangell soldiers working in Kuwait

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2006

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait - Six of the approximately 600 soldiers serving with the Alaska National Guard's 3rd Battalion in Kuwait are from Wrangell, population 1,700. What's more, their high school guidance counselor is with them.

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Few Alaska towns of equal size can match Wrangell's numbers and many larger towns have fewer soldiers, said Maj. Mark Turner, 49, the battalion's intelligence officer.

The battalion's soldiers began arriving in Kuwait in mid-October and will be stationed near the Iraqi border to help provide security for coalition forces in Kuwait.

Turner has lived in Wrangell since 1993, and for years was the town's only member of the National Guard. Then 9/11 happened, said Turner, and now there are 10 guardsmen from the town.

Turner has known most of the soldiers since they were children, primarily through his work as a pastor and as counselor for the Wrangell High School. Each one had their own reasons for joining the Guard, Turner said.

What they had in common was a desire for adventure and to gain adult experiences prior to going to college or entering the work force, he said. What influence Turner had on their decision to join the Guard was based on his ability to answer their questions about the military.

"I knew something about the career possibilities and the educational benefits, and I think that had some influence," Turner said.

Spc. Colin Buness, 19, and Pfc. Ali Strickland, 19, met in first grade at Wrangell Elementary School. By high school, they had become good friends and after graduating in 2005, they joined the Guard.

Buness became an aircraft repair specialist because he has been thinking of a career in aviation, and Strickland became an intelligence analyst because he had an interest in Middle Eastern studies.

Strickland now works for Turner analyzing information on enemy capabilities and intentions.

"I see the Guard as a springboard for a career in the intelligence field, maybe with the federal government," Strickland said.

Spc. Joseph Whitefeather, 31, grew up in Wrangell and moved north in 1996 looking for work after the pulp mill closed. He now lives in Wasilla and is a shipping manager for Lowe's Home Improvements.

Pvt. William Shilts just turned 18 and is one of youngest members of the battalion. There are 10 children in his family and all but one lives in Wrangell. He joined the Guard because he was looking for some career options.

Staff Sgt. Dennis Dillon, 40, met Turner when he registered his son, Craig Dillon, for school in 2005. Dillon had just moved to Wrangell, transferring from Juneau as a supervisor for Transportation Security Administration.

Others in the Alaska National Guard from Wrangell are Zach Taylor, currently attending UAA, and Nick Howell. Matt Nore recently returned from a tour in Iraq and is attending UAA.

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