Days after return from Afghanistan, 4-25 soldiers summit newly-minted Gold Star Peak
The recently-minted Gold Star Peak, named in honor of the families who've lost their loved ones in service to the United States, has welcomed many climbers over the years, even before being dedicated to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and the ones who care so much about them.
On Tuesday, the climbing group was a special one, including hike leader, Ret. 1st Sgt. Kirk Alkire, who led the way not only on the trail but for the naming of the peak itself; about half a dozen 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Div. soldiers, who returned from Afghanistan only days ago; and a few military spouses - who have spent years courageously supporting those servicemen - as well.
All were heading to the summit of Gold Star Peak on the way to Mt. POW/MIA - dedicated to past, present and future prisoners of war and solders missing in action - for the very first time.
"Coming here after our colonel told us what it means hits pretty home," said Capt. Vincent Powierski, who was on the climb Tuesday morning. "It's great to have this one place we get to go to honor the families of lost ones.
"We're doing this for a purpose," he said.
The hike itself begins off Eklutna Rd. in Eagle River and winds up a one-and-three-quarters-mile path, gaining about 3,000 feet in elevation through thick brush and shrubbery, before opening up into an area of grass and stones that must be trekked through before reaching the summit. Some people, like Alkire, have completed the climb in a mere few hours; others, including a 70-year-old who made it to the summit on Memorial Day, have taken up to 11.
"It's taxing," said Lt. Col. Rick Johnson, breathless but still moving with mission-like energy in the middle of the way up. "Physically, mentally, it's a difficult hike. But it pales in comparison with some of the sacrifices we're honoring today."
Lt. Col. Johnson and his wife and children are departing Alaska soon for a new base in the Lower 48. This was their last chance to summit Gold Star Peak before their departure, so they made it a priority to make it up to the top.
That's only part of this mission, though: Like his comrades, Lt. Col. Johnson spent the last nine months or so in the tough terrain of Afghanistan. Two of their brothers on the same deployment never made it home.
"To give families a touchstone, a place to go, a place to see a picture of, a place to have people carry an item to," said Leah Johnson, wife of Lt. Col. Johnson and founder of an up-and-coming non-profit serving veterans in Alaska, "I can hardly find the words."
The importance of having a dedicated spot for Gold Star families - hundreds of which reside in Alaska - and the pain of loss he suffered during his own campaign overseas was in large part what made Alkire push so hard for the recent federal naming of the peak.
"It's a place where people will absolutely come to heal," he said. "And they have a lot on their backs. Their rucksacks are full. Coming up to this very peak right here helps lighten their load."