Operation Santa heads to Chevak and Buckland in Western Alaska

Members of the Alaska Air National Guard board a C-130 plane at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage on Dec. 2, 2021, to participate in Operation Santa. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

A camouflaged Santa whirled into Buckland on a funny-looking sleigh this year. As part of its annual Operation Santa Claus, the Alaska National Guard delivered 261 presents to the community in northwest Alaska on December 14. Santa says he’ll drop off 360 gifts to Chevak after the holidays and once weather conditions allow.

Azara Mohammadi, tribal liaison for the Alaska National Guard, coordinated with the Native Village of Buckland and Chevak Native Village to organize and shop for gifts. The Salvation Army made the purchases, and volunteers wrapped gifts that began their journey to the two predominantly Alaska Native communities at the start of the month.

Randell Andrew, a sergeant with the Active Guard Reserve in Bethel, operates a forklift to unload 2,770-pounds of presents from an Operation Santa flight on Dec. 2, 2021. Presents will be delivered to Chevak as part of Operation Santa. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

On December 2, 24 Guard members boarded a C-130 plane loaded with 631 presents. The gifts were offloaded in Bethel and Nome, where they would be stored until delivery to the two communities. The Chevak-bound presents are still in Bethel, as of Christmas Eve.

Joseph Sallaffie, a sergeant with the Active Guard Reserve in Bethel, said Operation Santa helps the communities a lot during the holidays.

“Yesterday, me and my wife went to the local store here to look for some water and Gatorade, and we just had a hard time getting cases of water, so imagine if Bethel stores are having a hard time, imagine what the village stores are going through,” he said.

Dana Rosso, a public affairs specialist with the Alaska National Guard, said Operation Santa began in 1956, when St. Mary’s Mission was hit with spring floods and then a drought – impacting subsistence fishing and hunting. Rosso said the Air National Guard flew in donated gifts and supplies to help residents that year.

Rosso said Operation Santa recipient communities are identified by Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management as communities that have experienced particular hardship that year. The tribes in Chevak and Buckland could not be reached by time of publication.

No Guard members wore masks on the trip to Bethel and Nome, but Rosso said service members selected for the mission came from the same unit and office area, in order to lower the risk of Covid transmission. December 2, the day of the initial Operation Santa flight, was also the national deadline for Air National Guard service members to be vaccinated. Rosso said he did not have current vaccination numbers for the Alaska National Guard.

Members of the Alaska Air National Guard ride on a C-130 plane to Bethel on Dec. 2, 2021, the first stop in Operation Santa. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“This means a whole lot since, like I mentioned, Covid-19 and hard times – this means a whole lot,” Sallaffie said. “It’s kind of hard for them to enjoy a Christmas like it used to be, but with all this, it makes a difference.”

Alaska Public Media

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