Caught between an ad hoc base camp on the frozen arctic
shelf and the promise of warm shelter at the Alaska Army
National Guard armory in Barrow, 1st Lt. James Tollefson
peered out of the iced-over windshield of the tracked
Small-Unit Support Vehicle he was piloting.
Though it was early April, arctic spring conditions served
up temperatures of 5 below combined with 35-mph sustained
winds and gusts of 50 mph, making for a windchill of 38
Whiteout conditions blowing sugary, stingingly cold snow
masked deep ruts, ditches and snowdrifts. Tollefson was
driving practically blind and couldn't see the path through
the arctic shelf that would lead him and his passengers to
A Soldier belonging to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 297th
Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, braves whiteout conditions, April
4, 2016, in a field near Barrow, Alaska. Blowing snow, often moving
at up to 50 mph, made navigations and operations difficult during
the daylong trek through the arctic. (U.S. Army National Guard photo
by Sgt. David Bedard) ... More photos
Life immediately outside the heated confines of the SUSV was
foreboding to say the least. He couldn't go back and moving
forward seemed, in the moment, a harrowing task. How was the
officer going to find his way through the swirling white
Arctic Training ... Actually
late March, a platoon from Headquarters and Headquarters
Company, 297th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, boarded an
Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, stuffing SUSVs in the cargo
hold of the bird in the process.
Their destination was
Barrow, the country's northern-most town. Their mission was
to participate in Alaska Shield 2016, a scenario-based
training exercise partnering with local and state agencies,
before huddling in and around the Barrow armory for arctic
Capt. Ronald Desjardin, HHC, 297th BFSB
commander, summed up the value of training hundreds of miles
from most of the Soldiers' homes.
“This has truly been
arctic training,” he explained. “One of the side missions
here is we wanted to test our equipment ... It's been awesome
to see the equipment function well in this harsh
environment. It's worse than we thought it was going to be.
It's really, really cold.”
The first full day of arctic
training saw temperatures dipping to 15 below with 25-mph
winds. Faces, the only visible skin of Soldiers, quickly
turned cherry red under the unrelenting assault of the
world's largest air conditioner.
Soldiers circled around
Spc. David Smart, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 143rd Infantry
Regiment, who is an expert in cold-weather and arctic
operations due to his attendance at U.S. Army Alaska's Cold
Weather Leaders Course at the Northern Warfare Training
Center near Fort Greely.
The soft-spoken airborne
infantryman said – though he had never been north of the
Arctic Circle – the conditions weren't that different than
where he grew up in Hooper Bay, a Yupik village in Western
Alaska. The comment belied his familiarity with thriving in
temperatures many would find oppressive.
students through packing and unpacking a 10-man tent, which
looks more like a parachute than any sort of shelter. It's
important to put it away just right, he said, and to bundle
the guy lines in a particular arrangement. To do otherwise
risks Soldiers clumsily fiddling with the only item that can
shield them from subzero temperatures.
Soldiers how to install the Space Heater Arctic into the
tent, its smoke stack sticking conspicuously out the top of
the shelter. The heater runs on just about anything that
burns, be it wood or military-grade diesel.
On the other side of the armory grounds, fellow
1-143rd Soldier Staff Sgt. Paul Norwood taught his students
the more glamorous side of arctic operations, namely
Though he resides in Sitka, Norwood is a native
of Paris, France. His French lilt hasn't diminished despite
years in America. During his classes, he imparted a
characteristically Continental European sense of humor,
drawing laughs as much for his alien sensibilities as for
his wry wit.
The sergeant showed Soldiers how to traverse
the arctic with everything they need to survive: skis,
snowshoes, and an ahkio sled burdened with the
aforementioned tent and oven as well as enough food and
water to keep a squad in the field for several days.
Students hooked up to the ahkio like Siberian huskies. At
first, their attempts to coordinate the movement of the
heavy sled were met with decidedly awkward results, but soon
they mastered moving their source of shelter, sustenance and
warmth like pros, calling out turn commands to one another
in anticipation of obstacles.
After weeks of training at
home station and a bitterly cold day of practicum, the
Soldiers of HHC were ready to head out onto the arctic shelf
to put their skills to the frigid test.
It Takes All Kinds
Desjardin said brigade leadership task-organized
HHC's platoon to operate autonomously during their two-week
annual training. As such, the small unit of 48 Army
Guardsmen included mechanics, signal Soldiers and medical
One mechanic, 56-year-old Sgt. Kenneth Foytik,
found his way to Barrow by way of a circuitous years-long
route. He joined the Air Force in 1978 where he worked as a
power-production specialist, essentially an expert of
engines who stays on the ground and supports aircraft.
Foytik served for nearly nine years before taking off the
blue suit and rejoining civilian life. It was another 21
years before he would look at undertaking the military
Because he was 50, he was too old for
active-duty Air Force service. As it turned out, Foytik
found a home in the Army National Guard.
He had to start
all over again, attending basic training and advanced
individual training for military occupational speciality
91B, wheeled-vehicle mechanic. Nothing in his training
prepared him for anything as odd as the SUSV.
The SUSV is
a tracked, two-carriage vehicle well-suited for Army service
in Alaska. Though it has tracks, it is no tank. What it
lacks in armor and firepower, it makes up for in mobility.
As long as Foytik and his fellow mechanics kept it in ship
shape, it could power through waist-deep snow in the coldest
The platoon relied on the SUSV's
capability to negotiate drifts to get them to arguably the
toughest day of annual training.
When HHC Soldiers arrived at their training site about 5
kilometers south of Barrow, the sun was shining.
platoon quickly went about setting up their 10-man tent,
just as Smart had trained them. Unsheltered from 35-mph
winds, the task proved more difficult than it had at the
armory. Still, the platoon managed, motivated no doubt by a
desire to get out of the cold.
For training value and
because the tent wasn't large enough to shelter everyone,
Soldiers dug field-expedient snow shelters.
An hour into
their bivouac, the wind shifted direction and picked up a
torrent of grainy snow, which got into every crevice of Army
equipment. Cached rucks and helmets got coated, inundated
with the frozen stuff. Face masks quickly became useless as
breath melted caked-on snow. Goggles fogged up and became
Still, the Soldiers shoveled on and they
soon found refuge in their frozen caves. Sheltering the
troops from the withering wind, the improvised caves also
offered the added benefit of warm air rising from the
Once the Soldiers gained confidence in their
ability to survive such a frigid ordeal, Desjardin ordered
them to demolish their now-prized shelters. They were going
back to the armory. It wasn't cold enough to cancel tough
daytime training, but it was cold enough to preempt a night
sleeping under the drive of 50-mph snow.
The Value of
Facing a three-dimensional abyss of swirling
white, Tollefson wasn't vanquished in his task of getting
his SUSV and passengers back to the armory. He had his
training and the equipment necessary to navigate through.
He had his Defense Advanced GPS Receiver loaded with
waypoints. He had a radio to call the armory or back to the
camp. Most importantly, he had his fellow Soldiers operating
the other SUSV he was rolling with.
In time, the officer
found a stretch of the path that hadn't been reclaimed by
the snow. He and his fellow HHC Soldiers were home free.
“It's been like one unit,” Desjardin said of his composite
platoon that surmounted a tough day of arctic training. “If
this was one 48-person unit, I would take them anywhere.
By U.S. Army Sgt. David Bedard
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