Step by careful step, they work their way up the steep trail, digging deep into themselves for the strength to reach the lofty summit. Men, women, children– all ages and physical fitness–pulling themselves ever upward to a very special place; a mountain sanctuary that honors their departed loved ones.
These are Gold Star folks, family members and survivors of fallen U.S. Soldiers. And over the past two years, more than 400 of them have made the pilgrimage to 4,148-foot Gold Star Peak on 46 separate hikes, led by retired U.S. Army First Sergeant (retired) Kirk Alkire and his cadre of team leaders.
With a roughly 3,500-foot elevation gain over two miles, the primitive trail is steep in many places and quite difficult for most people. But no matter the age or physical condition, Gold Star folks who take on the journey consistently make it to the top.
“They are driven,” Alkire says. “Their hearts take them up that mountain to honor and remember friends and loved ones. And it’s a way for them cope with their grief. Over the past two years I’ve seen a lot of tears, but I’ve also witnessed healing. Climbing to the mountain’s summit monument takes strength. But upon reaching the summit and sharing the experience with others, the mountain gives that strength back—and then some.”
After a climb up Gold Star Peak in July 2018 with her father, a woman who is only identified by her first name, “Chrystal,” commented: “Since my brother was killed, my dad will rarely talk about it. It’s always been too difficult for him. Yesterday, (after climbing the mountain) was the first time that I’ve heard him reminisce about the good times we shared with Kevin for the 18 short years he was here. It was truly an experience that I will never forget.”
During a September 2019 climb to Gold Star Peak, another woman, “Jennifer,” observed: “On top of the mountain all I could think about was how thankful I was of the sacrifices of my friends who had given their lives so we could stand in such a beautiful place. Looking out at one of the most majestic views in the whole world, I was so filled with emotion that we were able to go on and LIVE and be free, that their love propels us on, and that we should make the most of our lives to honor them.”
Combat toll: Kirk Alkire knows firsthand what it is like to lose people. He served in Iraq from 2006-07 with the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division (4-25 IBCT (ABN),as a Firing Battery First Sergeant. The 4-25th IBCT (ABN) lost 53 paratroopers during its 15-month deployment during the 2007 “Surge.” Among them were some in Alkire’s unit.
According to an article on VFW’s website, https://www.vfw.org/media-and-events/latest-releases/archives/2018/11/gold-star-peak-is-closer-to-heaven insurgents attacked Alkire’s unit in Karbala on Jan. 20, 2007.
“They killed one of my guys instantly, then took four others hostage, or prisoner,” Alkire said. “[The insurgents] took them out into the Iraqi countryside as we were giving chase, and they knew we were on to them. So they pulled over, took my guys out of the vehicle and executed them on the side of the road.”
The men who were taken prisoner — Capt. Brian S. Freeman, 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz, Spc. Johnathan B. Chism and Pfc. Shawn P. Falter — received the POW medal. Pfc. Johnathon M. Millican, who was killed instantly, received the Silver Star.
Alkire looks upward: Retiring in 2008 after 23 years of service with the U.S. Army, Alkire embarked upon a new mission: naming a Chugach mountain he had climbed earlier. He wanted to call it “Gold Star Peak” to honor families of Soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. In 2016 he launched the formal naming process with state and federal agencies and the following year, with wide support from the public, military, Eklutna Native Corporation and others, approvals were granted.
Over the past two years, the “Gold Star Peak” project has received considerable recognition, even at the national level. On Feb. 8, 2018, Alkire was recognized and honored for his efforts by U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan on the floor of the United States Senate in Washington D.C. as the “Alaskan of the Week.” In March 2018, the 30th Alaska State Legislature honored Alkire in a special citation; and in May of 2019, he received a letter of commendation from the Joint Armed Services Committee of the 31st Alaska State Legislature.
“More and more folks are wanting to climb the mountain, so fortunately, I have some dedicated team leaders who help me guide people up there,” says Alkire. “They are John Wirth, John Anderson, Nate Greer, Isaac Redmond, Josh Sims, David Sparks, Forrest Voss and Dylan Youngblood. Getting all of the Gold Star folks up the mountain would be impossible without their help.”
Another notable destination in the area is Mount POW/MIA (4,314 feet) —to the east of Gold Star Peak. It was named in 1999 through the tenacious efforts of John Morrissey, a Vietnam veteran from New York. Traditionally, the flag atop POW/MIA has been replaced annually by the Palmer Colony Army JROTC program during Memorial weekend in May. But over the past two years, Alkire and fellow Veterans have climbed up to replace the flags, which are generously donated by Lowes Home Improvement Center in Anchorage.
“I had no idea when I started this project how much it would mean to these very special people – these Gold Star folks. I am continually amazed at the healing power of the mountain and the comfort it gives these survivors—the husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and especially, the children. Every time I venture there with them, it’s a deeply moving and rewarding experience.”