Some 1,000 new recruits chose Alaska as their first duty station as the Army scrambles to incentivize service in the inhospitable state by allowing new enlistees to pick where they are stationed, according to the commander of the 11th Airborne Division.
About 400 of those soldiers have already arrived in Alaska, where the Army is hoping to forge an elite volunteer force, and the remainder are on their way there after basic training, Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, whose division was recently reactivated in the state, told Military.com.
"The way I jumped into the Army is I wanted adventure and to do tough and challenging things. You aren't going to beat that here," Eifler said. "There's a requirement of grit to serve here."
Alaska is viewed as one of the Army's most difficult duty assignments because the environment itself can be dangerous, with temperatures that can dip below -50 degrees Fahrenheit. That is on top of the generally harsh conditions soldiers in airborne or light infantry units must endure.
Eifler is quick to say the environment isn't for everyone.
Even seasoned noncommissioned officers from the lower 48 states can experience a steep learning curve when operating and surviving in the frigid environment. Because of that, some in Alaska, including Eifler, see that rough lifestyle as an opportunity to mold units there into an elite volunteer-only force -- a hair above the rest of the conventional Army in terms of prestige.
"Every person we get that wants to be here is an added plus," Eifler said. "The more people you have doing that, the better off you'll be."
But it isn't just training for combat that's more difficult in Alaska. The state's bases are relatively isolated. The time zone difference and high cost of traveling to the lower 48 states can make it difficult for soldiers to stay in contact with their friends and family. The service has found it hard to keep recreation facilities and gyms fully operating due to a labor shortage.
The Army is also grappling with suicides in Alaska. Getting more mental health providers there has been a challenge, and wait times for appointments can stretch several weeks.
Eifler said the Army has made adjustments to salary offers and hiring bonuses. But recruiting a larger civilian workforce into Alaska is an ongoing issue.
In February, the service started allowing new enlistees to pick from a limited roster of duty stations, including bases in Alaska; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Drum, New York; Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Fort Polk, Louisiana.
In total, 6,388 soldiers have picked their first duty station themselves, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
On Aug. 1, the list of locations a soldier could select for their first posting expanded to 32, effectively all of the service's major bases, including those in Italy and Hawaii. However, options can depend on a soldier's job when they enlist.
Allowing recruits to pick their first duty assignment was a radical move; previously soldiers had little say over where the Army would put them.
The Army is in a major recruiting slump, likely due to a confluence of issues including outdated marketing tactics and a relative time of peace without many options for overseas combat to draw recruits. The service is expected to shrink in size by about 14,000 soldiers by the end of 2023.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.