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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ice and Fire: Eskimos in Kuwait

16 July 07
By Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
National Guard Bureau News
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CAMP BUERHING, Kuwait - Hot like a giant hairdryer; like standing under a giant magnifying glass; or like turning an oven to 127 degrees, jumping in and closing the door. These are ways Eskimo members of the Alaska National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment explain the Kuwait heat to family and friends back home.

The hottest weather that many of them experienced before the Alaska Guard's largest deployment since World War II brought them to the desert was 70 degrees, depending on the part of Alaska they're from, since the state has a wide range of temperatures over an area more than twice the size of Texas. Unit members claim the heat has approached 150 degrees in Kuwait during their deployment.

"Big difference for us; horrible," said Pfc. Darin Olanna, 23, from the Alaskan coast near Nome where the record high is 86 and the record low is minus 54. "As soon as I smell the ocean, it feels like home. I miss the mountain tundra. The wilderness is right out your back door."

A wilderness is right out the back door of Camp Buerhing, too – a sparsely populated flat desert. The coldest temperature on record in Kuwait? In January 1964, 21.2 degrees, according to the country's United Nations representatives. No "minus" in front of that number.

Drinking water, increasing food intake, seeking shade and – perhaps counter-intuitively – increased exercise regimens have helped the Alaskans cope with the heat, they say. Some douse themselves in cold water, as they would during peak heat back home.

"To me, it's the same survival techniques as being in the Alaskan winter," said Master Sgt. John Flynn, 40, a Yup'ik Eskimo. The extreme cold presents similar challenges to extreme heat, including dehydration, he said. Blinding sandstorms remind him of blinding snowstorms. "The only difference is when it's cold you put more layers on, but here even when it's hot you cannot take layers off," he said.

Near Nome, a "polar bear swim" is an annual tradition, swimmers diving into the water in May, when there is still ice. "If I could do that now, I wouldn't hesitate," Olanna said.

More than 80 Alaska communities are represented in the 3rd Battalion. "There's people from all over the state," Olanna said. "From Barrow to Dillingham to Nome to Sitka. You've got Athabascan Indian, Yup'ik Eskimo, Haidan Tlingit Indians from southeast. All walks of life."

Their mission in Kuwait, where they arrived in October 2006 and which they expect to leave this fall, includes providing security, including quick reaction forces that can cross the Iraqi border, and performing infrastructure vulnerability assessments.

In their civilian lives, the Eskimos hunt and fish for a smorgasbord of walrus, whales, Canada geese, moose, reindeer, bear, caribou, salmon, white fish, trout and pike. Some are full-time Guardmembers back home or have other jobs such as working in a halfway house counseling petty criminals, but their roots are in a way of life as radically different from most of their colleagues as is the lifestyle of Kuwait's desert nomads.

"The way I grew up, until I joined the Guard, was surviving off the land," Flynn said. "You need a little bit of money, but money will not make you survive where I'm from. The land will. Mammals, geese, wild flowers, berries, that's the way of life I grew up with – hunting and fishing." In Kuwait, rifles are the tools for personal protection. Back home, rifles are the tools for hunting.

"I miss the food from back home," said Spc. Reuben Olanna, 27. Darin Olanna's cousin fantasizes about a filet of salmon cooked within minutes of being caught. Darin Olanna missed corralling his friend's reindeer herd this year. The Olanna cousins are Inupiaq Eskimos from Brevig Mission and Nome.

For some, military service is the only reason they have ever left Alaska – to attend basic combat training in Georgia or South Carolina, pre-mobilization training in New Jersey, professional development in Arkansas. They have never previously deployed outside the state, which was exempt from overseas deployments during the Cold War because Alaska Guardmembers were considered forward deployed against the Soviet Union. "I have uncles that were in World War II and Vietnam," said Sgt. 1st Class Homer Nunooruk, 38. "Relatives that were in the first Gulf War and Afghanistan. It brings a deep pride in me."

Nunooruk, an Inupiaq from Nome, Alaska's northernmost town, said many Eskimos choose the National Guard for the educational opportunities, training and discipline. "A lot of my relatives that I talk to from other communities, they do it so that they have an alternative income and training and education," he said.

For Flynn, the National Guard was a life-changing opportunity. Orphaned at 13, inspired by the camaraderie he witnessed at a military funeral, reminiscent of an Eskimo extended family, the 19-year-old enlisted to turn his life around. Twelve of Nunooruk's relatives deployed with him. Another died in a vehicle accident during their pre-deployment training at Camp Shelby, Miss.

"Every once in a while, I'll pull them aside and we'll talk," he said. "We'll just talk about what's going on back home. Things that we miss. Hunting and fishing. Being outdoors. The biggest consensus is we miss being in the outdoors in Alaska, especially wintertime."

It has been a deployment of firsts – first exposure to such extreme heat, to a sand desert, to overseas travel, to separation from extended families. "Being away from home," Reuben Olanna said. "I can depend on no one else but all these other guys I've been training with."

Nunooruk said the deployment has helped him follow his parents' advice. "They always said 'See what's outside of Nome, '" he said. "When I went to Anchorage, they said, 'See what's outside of Alaska.' One thing they always wanted me to experience was different cultures and lifestyles. I always loved meeting new people and trying new foods."

Nunooruk moved his family to Palmer, where it reaches the 80s, before the deployment. "It's so hot at night, I can't sleep," his wife told him during one call home. "It's 123 degrees here," he replied. "80 is pretty cold here." He wondered if he would feel cold back home on leave.

The Eskimos say extended families are a blessing for a deployment. "I'm getting a lot of support from them, from all my cousins and friends. They've been telling me to hang in here," Reuben Olanna said. "I tell them I am enjoying it."

Unit members say they will miss something about their deployment in Kuwait – but it's not the heat. "Being around all these guys on a daily basis," Darin Olanna said. "It wouldn't be a bad place," Flynn said, "if it wasn't so hot."

Photo- The Alaska National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment has left its mark at Camp Buerhing, Kuwait. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill.

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