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Unalaska Hosts 1,000 Military Visitors In First U.S. Navy Stop Since The 1990s

Laura Kraegel/KUCB

A U.S. Navy warship called on Unalaska last week, marking the branch's first visit since the closure of Adak's base in the 1990s.

While city and tribal officials took the opportunity to push for a larger military presence on the island, other community members were wary of the crowds and chaos that came with 1,000 extra people in a community of about 4,500.

After the USS Somerset pulled into port, Mayor Frank Kelty went aboard to meet with U.S. Navy and Marine Corps leaders. Speaking with them on the 25,000-ton vessel based out of San Diego, he stressed Unalaska's strategic location.

"We are the only ice-free port in the area that could support operations in the Arctic," said Kelty. 

The Arctic is increasingly important to the U.S. military. For the first time in 30 years, the branches traveled to the Aleutian Islands last month to train and test their capabilities in a cold-climate environment

Captain Stewart Betashansky, the Somerset's commanding officer, said the large-scale exercises in Adak were "a good first start."

"It tells us that Mother Nature always gets a vote and she may exercise her vote multiple times over," said Betashansky. "We have to continue to feel out what we're capable of, what else we want to be capable of, and what our limits are. We felt that out, and we feel pretty good about what we saw."

It's still unclear if or when the military will spend more time in Aleutian waters, or if they'll bring the federal money that local officials are interested in. But Lieutenant Colonel Josh Anderson of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force said they were excited to spend four days in Unalaska during the course of their trip.

"The Marines and sailors are really enjoying their time in the city," said Anderson. "This morning, a number of them got up and went on some hikes up the hills and trails. I know a number of them are hoping to get out and cast a few lines and go fishing. It really is a terrific opportunity for them to be here and explore."

Sailors and Marines were all over town during their time off the ship — buying novelty sweatshirts at the grocery stores, using the library's internet to catch up with family, and eating, drinking, and singing karaoke at the bars and restaurants.

While businesses like the Norwegian Rat Saloon reported a profitable uptick in customers, bartender Jazzmyne Shapsnikoff said it was also chaos.

"There wasn't even standing room," said Shapsnikoff. "You were elbow to elbow."

Even though the Rat prepared by setting up an extra bar and thawing hamburger patties in advance, she said they still ran out of ice, had their soda guns break, and struggled to accommodate the surge of people.

"Trying to get a drink — we had both lines going and a bar in the back, and it was still insane," said Shapsnikoff. "I had local people come up and hold napkins, saying, 'Locals over here!' because they wanted a drink. I'm like, 'I see you! I'm going to get to you.' Oh my gosh, it was insane."

Still, Unalaska's police department said they found the military guests to be respectful overall. Sergeant Patrick Bliss said there was an increase in police calls over the weekend, but it wasn't exclusively caused by the visitors, who had a nightly curfew.

"We had a very busy weekend, starting Thursday night," said Bliss. "However, of all of our calls of service, I think only maybe two or three involved any service members. I thought all went well, considering the influx of people. From our perspective, it was a positive experience for us at the department."

With Arctic sea ice melting, shipping traffic increasing, and shifting defense priorities, U.S. policymakers and military leaders are still weighing how Alaska — and the Aleutians — will fit into their bigger picture

Whatever happens, City Manager Erin Reinders said she was glad for the recent opportunity to introduce the Navy and Marines to Unalaska, where the only current military presence is a seven-person U.S. Coast Guard unit focused on fishing boat safety.

"The fact is that we are in a very strategic location, with shipping routes," said Reinders. "Just by where we're at geographically, we might attract some folks. And then it's up to us as a community to work with anybody that we're attracting — be they military or otherwise — to talk about how that might impact our town and how we can make the best of those situations."

Reinders said the city is inviting island residents to weigh in on the possibility of an increased military presence as officials continue updating Unalaska's comprehensive plan, which will outline the city's priorities for the next decade. 

KUCB's Laura Kraegel contributed reporting.

Hope McKenney reported for KUCB from 2019 until 2022. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2021.
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