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Old 10-16-2006, 05:25 PM   #1
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A Soldier Comes Home to Alaska, Too Early and Yet Too Late

BARROW, Alaska — When the soldiers from the frozen tundra shipped out for the burning sands of Iraq, Staff Sgt. Billy Brown promised the women that he’d bring their men back alive.

But when Sergeant Brown returned just two weeks later, he didn’t bring his men at all. He came with a funeral detail. He came cargo, in a silver coffin with wood handles cloaked in an American flag. He is believed to be the first Eskimo killed because of this war. He was 54.

Sergeant Brown, an Alaska national guardsman, never got to a battlefield. He was killed when a tractor-trailer slammed into the back of his Humvee late in July while he was on training maneuvers at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

His death rattled this town of 4,200, mostly Inupiaq Eskimos, located 500 roadless miles from anywhere and 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Finally, tangibly, the war has reached one of the most isolated corners of the country.

“Until now the war was more like a television show,” said Edward S. Itta, mayor of the North Slope Borough, in which Barrow lies, and a friend of Sergeant Brown’s. “You don’t question the war until it touches you. Only then, when a man like Billy, an important man to us, comes home dead, does the question become clear. We fight. But to what end? What’s in it for my grandchildren?”

During the cold war, the battle line was drawn right here on the North Slope, with the Soviets skulking just across the Bering Strait. Most Alaska Guard members stayed in the state, protecting the home front.

But the world has changed. For this war, 670 Guard members have been called up from rural Alaska, its largest foreign deployment ever. The Alaska Guard estimates that one-third of its members are Eskimo, so most likely a third of those deployed are indigenous men, officials say, though the military does not keep official racial records of this type.

Among the most skilled was Staff Sergeant Brown, a 29-year veteran of the Guard and an Arctic survival specialist.

“He could have retired years ago,” said his niece Audrey Saganna. But he volunteered for the mission so other soldiers who had served multiple tours in Iraq could get a rest, she said.

The funeral of William Franklin Brown lasted many hours, Eskimo tradition holding that anyone who wanted to speak could do so. It took 20 men an entire day to dig his grave through the permafrost. Tribal leaders decided he should be buried in the Elders Cemetery, a great honor here. His grave is marked like the others, with a simple wooden cross. He is buried next to his father.

Born in the mining town of Lost River on the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska, Sergeant Brown grew up in Barrow, one of 18 brothers and sisters. Whaling is the centerpiece of the culture and Sergeant Brown worked as an oarsman on one crew and was a walrus and polar bear hunter. He worked for a spell at the post office, was elected to the City Council and eventually settled in as the shipping and receiving manager at the local hospital.

By virtue of his hospital job, Sergeant Brown was in attendance when nearly every Barrow child was born. He did not do this out of obligation, his people said, but because he was proud to be Inupiaq.

He never married and fathered no children of his own, but Sergeant Brown was an uncle and a counselor to dozens of struggling young men, and by native tradition, under which age is respected and revered, he was an uncle to hundreds more.

The call-up has affected Eskimo villages all across the state, some of the most remote and rugged corners of this country. The men come from places like Kongiganak, Emmonak and Scammon Bay, where winter survival depends on the summer harvest of otter, moose, geese, fish and whale. With the men gone, the long, brutal winter is expected to be even more bitter for those they’ve left behind.

Barrow is different from the Eskimo villages. Oil revenues from Prudhoe Bay have made it something of a city. There are flush toilets and smokestacks and a Japanese restaurant. City ways have brought city problems. Methamphetamines and alcohol are afflictions. The native language is spoken less and less. Satellite television is the entertainment of choice, and fewer young people hunt nowadays. Residents increasingly rely on the grocery store freezer rather than the winter larder.

Read rest of story:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/16/us...rssnyt&emc=rss
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