Guardsmen sacrifice holidays for public safety

Posted: Monday, December 24, 2001

On Christmas Day, Sgt. Fritz Brown would like to be home in the village of Kipnuk, chowing down on dry fish dipped in seal oil.

Instead, he'll be spending a 10-hour shift in uniform at the Juneau Airport, keeping travelers safe from terrorists.

Brown, 37, has served with the Army National Guard for 17 years, training in places like Hawaii and Oregon for two weeks once a year. He'll retire from the guard in May, after serving an 18-year hitch. He arrived in Juneau on Nov. 16 after special training in Anchorage, the only man from his village of 500 to be called to active duty after the crisis of Sept. 11.

"This is my first trip to Juneau," Brown said. "I've been shopping for my family - my wife, Peggy, and six kids." The children range in age from 11 to 2, and he's been sending home boxes of boots and winter clothing, he said. He was on duty on Thanksgiving, and will be on duty again New Year's Day.

Like Brown, Spec. Tom Tom of Chefornak has left Southwest Alaska to serve the traveling public. Tom, 32, is a subsistence hunter who looks forward to the March seal season. He once spent three weeks training with the guard in Germany. Until now, that was his longest period away from home.

Duty in Juneau is "pretty good," said Tom, a 10-year member of the guard. He will be on duty Christmas morning. Back in Chefornak, a village of 400, he'd be sitting around the table with his parents, two brothers and three of his sisters; another sister works in Bethel. When not hunting, he clerks at the village corporation's general store or travels by snowmachine to Nightmute.

Both Brown and Tom will be relieved of their duties on Jan. 6. They are two of thousands of members of the guard around the country who find themselves far from the comforts of hearth and home as they enforce new security rules at airports.

Maj. Mark Turner is the battalion intelligence officer with the National Guard for the duration of the assignment, which might be six months or more. Turner has been separated from his family in Wrangell and from his regular job as pastor of the Church of God there.

"Most of our soldiers are stationed in their home towns for this duty," Turner said. "We tried to do that as much as possible, and probably 80 percent of them are there. It saves the government money for housing as they can stay in their own homes, and they get paid a little more - so it's a win-win situation."

Turner was planning to see family in Idaho for the holidays. On Sept. 10, he made reservations for himself, his wife, Rheva, and his daughter, Fonja, 14. "We were going to Idaho to visit my parents. My boys who are in college in Oklahoma City and Phoenix were going to join us there," Turner said. "Then my wife and I were going to go to Cancun, Mexico, for a few days, combining the travel as most Alaskans do."

When the terrorism of Sept. 11 came along, Turner anticipated being called to active duty, and told the Wrangell travel agency to "forget it." Fonja did not want to leave her friends in eighth grade, and her mother decided to stay in Wrangell.

However, he is being given time off Dec. 23 to Dec. 30, and will join his family Outside.

Lt. Col. Tim Koeneman is in charge of heightened security at six airports, including Juneau Airport. Koeneman and his wife, Polly, have lived in Petersburg since 1970, but adapt to calls to duty that take them elsewhere.

"My wife has had the same philosophy when I have to go away for extended periods of training: We set up a second home," said Koeneman, who recently retired from 26 years of shellfish research with the state Department of Fish and Game. "She and my Labrador retriever are here with me. So I am not as far away from home as some of the other guard.

"We have found that we both like it a lot better for her to come with me, rather than being separated for long periods of time," Koeneman said.

Two of the couple's three children live in Juneau. The third, a daughter who lives in Seattle, will visit for Christmas, as will Polly's mother, from Petersburg. While her husband is occupied with guard duties, Polly labors at her hobby, Scandinavian rosemaling (painting on enameled metalware), and keeps in touch with her mother and the children.

"We didn't bring the boat, so I miss winter king salmon fishing and duck season, but it's OK," Koeneman said. "But we brought our skates and skis and the throwing dummies for the Labrador so I can keep her trained (for retrieving ducks). We're going to have a nice Christmas."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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