JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — With the village of Bethel serving as the backdrop for his youth, and much of his military career spent engaging with residents of rural Alaskan communities, you could say that Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Hildreth was made for his current position.
Hildreth was hand selected by Brig. Gen. (Alaska) Laurie Hummel, the adjutant general, to serve the Alaska National Guard as the senior enlisted leader, and additionally, he was charged with spearheading the Guard’s new rural initiative.
A life-long Alaskan, Hildreth has lived and worked throughout rural Alaska. All journeys begin with one small step, and his journey into the far-reaching communities of Alaska began in 1981.
“My dad was a state trooper out of Anchorage, and when I was 12, he got this assignment that took us to Bethel,” explained Hildreth.
Bethel is a fairly flat region, by Alaska’s standards. It sits inside braids and weaves of the Kuskokwim River in an area that makes up the second largest wildlife refuge in the United States, the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Bethel has a population of approximately 6,000 people, but when Hildreth arrived in 1981, he joined a community of barely 3,000.
“I didn’t get it at the time, and I honestly couldn’t wait to leave after we got there, but looking back, Bethel had a profound impact on me,” Hildreth said. “Growing up with Native friends, building those connections and having that root system in Bethel was really good for me.”
Not long after graduating from Bethel Regional High School in 1986, Hildreth found his ticket out of rural Alaska with a two-year U.S. Army enlistment as a truck driver. His active-duty career took him across the United States to Ft. Story, Va., but was short-lived. While away, returning to Bethel was at the forefront of his mind.
After moving back to Bethel, Hildreth stayed busy working odd jobs. But his interest in the Alaska Army National Guard was piqued while talking to a Black Hawk mechanic in the local unit. He decided to join the Guard and found a full-time position as a vehicle mechanic.
“My first shop was manned by a crew of all Native NCOs, they were Yupik Eskimos … some of the best guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for,” described Hildreth. “They were honest as the day is long, very compassionate; but when it was time to work, we were going to work.
“I didn’t realize it then and took that situation for granted,” Hildreth continued. “Looking back, it was the best time of my career.”
So began Hildreth’s long and varied career as an Alaska Army National Guardsman. He looked for opportunities that allowed him to work with and be a voice for Alaska’s rural communities. He was a recruiter in Bethel, a guidance counselor at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Anchorage, and had a three-year stint at National Guard Bureau’s recruiting office in Washington, D.C.
These opportunities provided Hildreth with vast and diverse recruiting experience and knowledge. It also gave him an avenue where he was able to build rapport and relationships with rural Alaskans while developing a deeper understanding of Alaska’s unique Native culture. Most importantly, he earned the trust of rural Alaskan families, all of which are imperative to his position with the rural Guard initiative.
Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott recognize that Alaskans state-wide are interested in restoring the prominent role and positive social and economic presence of the rural Guard. They recognize the valuable experience that the historic rural Guard brought to Alaska and see enormous significance in strengthening the Alaska National Guard presence in remote villages.
Many of the last frontier’s rural communities are nestled among more than 54,000 miles that make up Alaska’s coastline. These populations are in need of monitoring and search and rescue supplemental support, making the rural Guard initiative of utmost importance to Alaskans and its leaders.
“Our desire for rural participation isn’t just a slogan — there’s something behind it. It’s our job to find creative ways to engage that population and make opportunities for them to participate,” explained Hildreth. “I am and will remain unflinchingly supportive of not only the National Guard, but of these rural communities.”
Minimal infrastructure, lack of road systems, weather challenges, and distances to Alaska National Guard armories are just a few of the difficulties that rural Alaskans face with National Guard membership. In an effort to educate National Guard Bureau leadership, most of whom have never visited Alaska, Hildreth coordinated a three-day tour of Alaska National Guard armories. The visitors experienced first-hand the complications that weather and lack of road systems can have on travel.
“They were shocked, to put it plainly, at how a little bad weather can really impact travel, itinerary, and training events where you have Soldiers coming in from all over the state,” Hildreth said. “At one point we were trying to travel from Bethel to Hooper Bay, and although the weather was fine in both places, there was a system we weren’t able to get through with the Black Hawk.
“What I wanted them to take away from their trip is that most states don’t have to worry about traveling their variously-located Soldiers who are a three-hour flight away from their armories, and most states are able to utilize a road system as alternate means of travel,” explained Hildreth. “We are a unique state.”
Hildreth’s roles as senior enlisted leader also include advising the adjutant general on all matters effecting training, effective utilization, health of the force, and enlisted professional development.
When Hildreth isn’t keeping up with the variety of responsibilities and challenges he faces at work, he enjoys his home life in Wasilla with his wife, Marlene, who he describes as his “rock.” Marlene is an
Alaskan Native of Yupik descent from Akiak. They met in Bethel prior to Hildreth joining the Guard. They have six children, all of whom are old enough to drive the Ford vehicles that he has restored for each of them.
“I love Ford’s … I love opening up a truck, taking a look at the engine, figuring out what’s wrong and knowing how to fix it,” expressed Hildreth, with an amusing smile. “For me, the instant gratification in repairing something like that is therapeutic.”
With Hildreth’s Army experience having spanned nearly three decades and with his career taking him to various corners of the earth, one could say that Hildreth’s refurbished Ford F-150s aren’t the only ones that are built Ford tough.