Before the sub zero temperatures, before their feet began to numb with cold and before their breath cast an icy fog inside their up-armored Humvee, they were warm.
Back in a garage on the missile defense complex at Ft. Greeley, Alaska. That’s where Spc. Gabriel Ives and Spc. Ian Beers from the Alaska Army National Guard’s 49th Missile Defense Battalion, Military Police Company, had prepared for their shift, Dec. 6. They checked their weapons and clothing – two almost equal necessities when you’re securing a missile base near the Arctic Circle.
Both Soldiers had grown up in Alaska’s harsh winters. Despite the constant darkness, freezing winds and snow storms, they and many others choose to protect the Guard’s missile mission, deep in the state’s isolated interior.
While Ives drove the Humvee through snow drifts, Beers checked a perimeter fence surrounding the complex’s 850-acres of missile silos and high-security buildings.
Missile defense may be known for its hot technology, they said, but the military police Soldiers out in the cold here are just as vital to national security.
“There’s no place like this,” said Ives, navigating a turn. He slowed to make out the road through the blowing and drifting snow. An arctic gust pushed freezing air through the Humvee’s door seals. The blast countered the warming effect of an overburdened heater and made the cab feel like a rolling meat locker.
Another security patrol wheeled past them and then disappeared with a wave and a snowy whiteout.
Around the perimeter
The military police at Fort Greely face one of the National Guard’s most extreme working environments.
Two-thirds of the battalion’s missile defense forces here, about 130 Soldiers, provide site security for an ever-expanding missile defense complex.
The complex has about 24 ground-based interceptor missiles in underground silos, but Defense officials say a total of 44 GBIs, the majority of them at Greeley, will be in place by 2013.
As a tactical unit, Fort Greely manages the only fire direction center with ground-based interceptor missiles on site. It is also one of only two sites in the nation that launch and direct GBI missiles.
A live test of the GBI system, Dec. 5, resulted in the successful interception of a ballistic missile in space, off the coast of California.
The MPs said they face multiple challenges protecting the complex, which range from the extreme weather and the remote location to providing high-level security amid the constant construction, and the comings and goings of contractors and distinguished visitors.
They apply a detect, defend and delay site-security concept, which includes monitoring, Humvee patrols, random foot patrols and building, vehicle and personnel searches.
Their state-of-the-art security system also integrates software, equipment and technology that until recently was heard of only in science fiction. The Soldiers can also operate hand-held unmanned aerial vehicles and have the ability to track the slightest movements around the complex. But even with the latest technology, they said nothing can fully counter the effects of the extreme winters.
Freezing temperatures arrive here in mid-September. By the new year, sunlight drops to five hours, and wind chills plummeted to minus 60 degrees.
“Having the proper cold weather gear and knowing how to use it is critical,” said Ives. “When your feet get cold, you are going to have a miserable day.”
Ives parked the cold-soaked Humvee, and both Soldiers looked out the windshield, past the perimeter fence and toward a mammoth, snow-covered mountain range.
“I’ve been to a lot of places, but, in my opinion, there’s no place that compares to Alaska,” said Beers.
Fort Greely’s remote location is just north of the Alaskan Mountain Range and nearly 350 miles northeast of Anchorage. To its southwest, North America’s highest peak, Mt. McKinley, ascends to an aspiring 20,320 feet.
Although the views can be priceless, the battalion’s Soldiers and equipment pay a toll.
Vehicles undergo constant maintenance and are run around-the-clock to keep them from freezing. Weapons have to be covered and specially oiled. Slips, frostbite, and hypothermia are constant dangers.
Soldiers stationed here receive a $150 monthly stipend for their duty in extreme conditions. Their isolation and real-world national defense mission also justify forward deployed status, so none are deployable overseas.
“There’s an extreme adjustment that the Soldiers have to go through,” said 1st Lt. Ryan Skaw, the company’s executive officer. “It’s an arctic desert.”
Skaw said that everything takes longer preparation.
“There’s a lot of snow buildup … the wind is atrocious here,” he said. “Trying to be able to focus and stay focused on what you need to do for the mission becomes more difficult.”
When you get down to minus 60 degrees and minus 70 degrees, things start to break, he said. “Even engineers who design it and say it won’t break, it’ll break.”
Skaw said nutritional needs go up, along with the need to consume water and calories.
“They are wearing a lot of extra garment layers, so it’s physically more demanding along with the elements the environment dishes out,” said Skaw.
The MPs wear a seven-layer, cold weather system called Generation III issued by the Army Cold Regions Test Center. The center works with the battalion to get feedback on their latest cold weather gear.
The most recent Generation III system includes a light silk layer, a waffle textured shirt as well as fleece and other high-tech fabric, which Soldiers adjust to their level of comfort. On the coldest days, there’s little of a Soldier seen but a set of eyes inside a bundle of fabric and body armor.
“Today we went from minus 15 degrees to 15 degrees,” said Skaw. “We can adjust our garment system to match that 30-degree change in temperature and [to match] our operation tempo.”
The great outdoors
Off-hours find the Soldiers watching movies, cooking or enjoying the outdoors.
“For Soldiers who like the outdoors, this is a good place to go,” said Ives.
Beers said he sees moose and fox regularly.
Soldiers also spot wolf, elk, and bears. Off post, there are countless outdoor activities including kayaking, hunting, hiking, camping, and fishing. Route 4, the only road out of Fort Greely and the nearby town of Delta Junction, crosses sections of the Alaskan pipeline, past historical gold rush camps and trails.
Skaw, who grew up on Alaska’s offshore island of Kodiak, said the MP mission is open to Soldiers outside of Alaska who are “looking for a challenge.” The battalion recruits nationwide, online and through the state’s National Guard headquarters in Anchorage.
Many MPs that arrive here from tropical climates like Guam, the Virgin Isla, ds and Florida have acclimated to the weather and the mission, said Skaw. New arrivals are trained on cold weather operations.
Morale, welfare and recreation offices as well as a base chaplain and a support group are here for Soldiers and their families. There’s daycare, counseling, activities and other services.
“We have a lot of extensions here because Soldiers tend to like what Alaska has to offer them,” said Skaw. “Most fall in love with Alaska, the great outdoors it offers and love working this mission.”
Ives and Beers, still riding on their cold patrols today, said the payoff for working this winter comes soon: the summer.
“The summers are great here,” said Beers. “Yeah … long, warm days,” said Ives.