For Pfc. Walter Hotch-Hill of Juneau, being in the Alaska Army National Guard is like belonging to a big family.
"Wherever you go there's somebody who is in the service or has been in the service," he said. "There's a lot of tradition there."
And if the Alaska Army National Guard is a family, Hotch-Hill is the favorite son this year. He earned the distinction of the Alaska Soldier of the Year in an Anchorage competition this month against other guard members.
Hotch-Hill joined the Alaska Army National Guard in June 2002. He graduated from Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka in 1998 and is working toward a bachelor's degree at the University of Alaska Southeast.
"I've always kind of wanted to do (military) service, so it wasn't that big of a deal to me," said Hotch-Hill, who has several uncles who served in the military.
He had 19 weeks of training in Missouri in October 2002, where his military occupation specialty was preparing for and reacting to nuclear, biological and chemical attacks.
"He went to chemical school and was an honors grad," said Sgt. Mac Metcalfe, the training noncommissioned officer for Hotch-Hill's company. "That's a pretty challenging school. Even to get in you have to have high scores on an entrance exam. Walter not only had high scores, he did real well in the school."
The path to becoming Alaska soldier of the year is demanding, Metcalfe said. Hotch-Hill was picked first by his Headquarters Company commander and then by his battalion commander as soldier of the year for each of those divisions.
He then spent a weekend in Anchorage competing against other Alaska soldiers in a written test, a physical fitness test, drills and ceremonies, soldier task-testing such as putting on protective masks and using navigation skills, and an interview with a board of command.
"There are 2,000 National Guard soldiers in Alaska," said Maj. Duff Mitchell, Hotch-Hill's company commander. "Only one is picked per year - that's pretty good."
Being chosen as Alaska's soldier of the year speaks well of Hotch-Hill and of the Headquarters Company and the Third Battalion, of which he is a member, Mitchell said.
"You come back from boot camp and you're squared away in your particular area of expertise, or at least you should be, but when you go up for soldier of the year it encompasses the wide spectrum of military areas," Mitchell said.
In his weekend training sessions with the Alaska Army National Guard, Hotch-Hill learned drills, military history and weaponry skills that he may not have learned in basic training, Mitchell said.
Hotch-Hill has seen changes in himself during the course of his service. He is more confident in his decision-making abilities and is quicker to take a leadership role in everyday situations, he said.
"He's one of those people I think that any employer would value," said Metcalfe. "He's always looking for things to do."
Though he plans to spend his life in Southeast Alaska with his wife of 2 1/2 years, Jenni, Hotch-Hill said he feels prepared to serve abroad if it is required of him.
"There's always a chance," he said. "If I have to go, I have to go."
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.