Thursday, July 10, 2014

Baptism of an Arctic Warrior Part I: Do or Die a Coward

Way back when, I listed my preferences for my first duty station as a commissioned officer. Naturally I chose Hawaii first because duh. I tried to use my family living there at the time as an "extenuating circumstance" to get me stationed there. Uncle Sam didn't buy it. I figured he wouldn't, which is why I spent much more time considering my number two choice: ALASKA.

My Choices for First Duty Station

So I had heard tales of Alaska and all of its (cold) glory, and I was intrigued by its remote location and (very cold) "otherworldly" reputation. I also wanted to go somewhere outside of the continental United States (preferably where it was warm all the time, ergo Hawaii). Everyone I had talked to said that they loved living in Alaska, and I figured that if I wasn't stationed there I would never go there (because it's so fricken cold). 

More than anything though, I had this primal fear of the Arctic; this nagging reluctance to ever face the ice and cold and snow and ice and cold and snow of the frozen north. There is something unforgiving and cruel about the Arctic that didn't sit well with me, and the fact that something so (seemingly) trivial unsettled me made me feel less of a warrior. So naturally I had to go there and face it or forever be a wuss. 

I had, in fact, dodged an assignment to attend Northern Warfare Training in Alaska as a Cadet by looking my instructor square in the eye and saying, "Sir, I will fight anywhere for you: jungle, desert, forest, plains - hell even under water, but I'm not going to fight in the Arctic. Thanks but no thanks." I ran from my fear a second time when I enlisted in the National Guard and made my recruiter promise me not to send me anywhere with snow. I didn't realize at the time that YOU pick the state you serve in when you enlist in the National Guard, but the fact and principle of me running from the Arctic had manifested itself a second time.

As for how cold it ACTUALLY was, I had been told that the winters were pretty much the same as winters in the Lower 48.  Right?! Anchorage (located in a temperate climate zone) gets cold winters, but the temperature hovers around zero degrees and rarely goes under. It can't be too much worse than Utah's winters - around ten degrees throughout winter - right? I thought sure, I can face the Arctic on my own time while enjoying a temperate climate zone for the rest of my tour. 

WELL THE JOKE WAS ON ME. There are TWO Army bases in Alaska: one in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks. I had no idea there was a base in Fairbanks (located in a SUB-ARCTIC climate zone), where the weather varies between -60 degrees in the nine-month long winters and 100 degrees in the three-week long summers! 

Destiny had the last laugh. I would face my fear weather I wanted to or not (see wut I did thar). I therefore vowed to embrace it fully by taking a plunge into the Arctic Ocean and being baptized a true Arctic Warrior. 

My first year stationed in Fairbanks was spent in Afghanistan. The second year afforded me no opportunity to make the 14-hour drive to the top of the world. I had survived a winter in Afghanistan (a little bit cold but not bad - IEDs were harder to survive than the winters) and a winter in Fairbanks (a true test of fortitude). I had also (barely) survived the 14-day long Arctic Warrior Leader Course operating in the mountains of Alaska for 14 straight days in the dead of winter... but I still hadn't taken the plunge and I only had this one year left. I resolved to do or die a coward. 

Luckily, these three old guys I know in Fairbanks are as crazy as I am and volunteered to come along. I didn't even have to persuade them; I just told them that I was planning to take the Polar Bear Dive this summer or forever wear a bag over my head in shame and turn in my Infantry Blue Cord. They jumped on board and provided damn near ALL of the logistical planning efforts. If it wasn't for them, I'm not sure I would have been able to make the trip. Especially considering what happened along the way... but I'm getting ahead of myself. Where was I? Oh yeah: I salute you Kurt "Smooth Talkin" Newman, Sir William Edward "Billy Fix It" Merritt, and Lance "Lumpy" Lundberg the Bionic Man. You are true American Heroes.



Fast forward through months of planning and scheming and toenail painting sessions (which Billy Fix It declined to participate in), and we were ready to face the Arctic Ocean and take a dive with Destiny.

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