Alaskan squadron delivers Christmas

  • Published
  • By By Staff Sgt. Nate Hier
  • 3rd Wing Public Affairs
The 517th Airlift Squadron here made its annual pilgrimage to a remote Alaskan village Dec. 3 with Christmas gifts and cheer.

The 517th AS "Firebirds" have been making the trip to Arctic Village for more than 30 years.

The tradition began in 1967 when the porcupine caribou herd - the villagers' primary source of food - changed its migratory trek because of forest fires. The squadron, then known as the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron, flew the village hunters to the herd and returned with their meat, saving the village from starvation.

Since then, the Arctic Village Booster Club - through the support of the 517th Spouses Group and squadron volunteers - has brought food, clothing, school supplies and gifts to the villagers every year.

"It's all about the children," said Linda Stephenson, a spouses group member who made her third trip to Arctic Village. "To see the smiles on their little faces is just amazing. The only Santa most of the villagers have ever seen has come off an Air Force C-130 (Hercules)."

One such villager, Bertha Ross, was just 4 years old in 1967 when the tradition began.

"When I was a little girl, Santa Claus would fly over waving from the side door, and the men would drop Santa's gifts out the back," said Ross. "It was the most exciting thing for the whole year."

Besides school supplies and gifts for the children, volunteers also brought meat to help alleviate a poor caribou-hunting season because of another change in the herd's migratory patterns. They also brought other staples, such as butter, bacon, flour and sugar, in addition to a laser printer and a new copier for the village council.

There were also some new additions to the traditional cargo this year. Spouse Lori Porter, a pediatrician, worked hard to obtain needed medical supplies. Elaine Hedden, another spouse who is a physical therapist, worked with the villagers on various stretching exercises. One villager in particular - recently shot in the knee while hunting - received one-on-one training to aid in his recovery.

One of the biggest additions to this year's event came from an Angel Tree the booster club set up in downtown Anchorage.

"Having the Angel Tree was an absolute huge help," said Stephenson. "That really helped let the community know what this annual event is all about and allowed them another avenue to join in and help."

The booster club also raised $13,000 through their annual auction, during which community businesses donated money and gifts.

Much has changed in the last 35 years for both the villagers and the volunteers. While Ross is no longer an excited little girl standing on the frigid runway waiting for Santa to open the door, she took just as much pleasure in this year's visit by bringing the next generation into the magic of this unique Christmas tradition.

During the celebration in the village community center where Santa handed out presents to each of the 74 children, Ross was holding two village infants as they saw their first "C-130 Santa Claus."