Santa, soldiers bring joy to beleaguered Alaska village

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This Dec. 3, 2019, photo shows a sign posted on the door of the public school in Napakiak, Alaska. The Alaska National Guard brought its Operation Santa Claus to the western Alaska community, which is being severely eroded by the nearby Kuskokwim River. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

NAPAKIAK, AK – A school employee wearing a traditional pink Alaska Native smock called a kuspuk breezed through the hubbub in the cafeteria adorned with murals of purely Alaska scenes, zigzagging through children clutching presents and past uniformed soldiers wearing Santa caps.

“Napakiak is happy today,” she proclaimed to principal Sally Benedict.

That’s a rare emotion of late for the 300 or so residents of this western Alaska community. “We’re falling into the Kuskokwim River,” Benedict explains, because of erosion that is forcing everyone to move their town farther inland.

But for one day this month, the Alaska National Guard gave folks a reason to smile, thanks to its “Operation Santa Claus" program, which featured the jolly old elf himself distributing gifts to the children.

“This lightens the load,” said Benedict, a former Detroit educator who arrived last summer. “This is sunshine for us. It’s a brightening of our day.”

Now in its 63rd year, Operation Santa Claus has become a rarity among National Guard units. Defense officials have shut down the program everywhere but Alaska, where the mission survives because the state is so large and some communities are so remote.

The program started in 1956 when the residents of St. Mary’s, Alaska, had no money to buy children Christmas presents after flooding severely impacted hunting and fishing. Since then, Guard members try to visit at least two rural communities a year, delivering Christmas gifts and other needed supplies.

They've been to remote burgs with names like Koyukuk, Savoonga, Illiamna, Kwethluk and Tuntuliak. The visit to Napakiak involved two aircraft: a 400-mile (644-kilometer) trip in a small airplane from Anchorage, then a five-minute helicopter ride to the village.