By Jennifer Schultz

Alaska's size, climate, wildlife, and rugged beauty make the “Last Frontier” not only a spectacular tourist destination, but a place that residents are proud to call home.

And if all that weren't enough, the state is also remarkable from a military perspective.

Alaska is home to five major military installations and a number of National Guard units. These installations contribute billions of dollars to the local economy. According to a 2011 Bloomberg Government study, defense spending accounted for 10.7 percent of Alaska’s economy, the third highest percentage among U.S. states.

NCSL’s Task Force on Military and Veterans Affairs recently traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, where members had the opportunity to tour Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and hear from experts on a variety of issues affecting military bases, returning veterans and their families. Read a summary of the meeting. 

In a speech given to Congress in 1935, General William Mitchell called Alaska the “most important strategic place in the world.” This statement is even more relevant today, as pilots stationed at airfields around the state can reach practically any destination within 12 hours. Alaska’s military capabilities also support U.S. policy to place greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region and expand our presence in the Arctic.

Another lasting impact of military presence in Alaska is the veteran population. According to 2012 U.S. Census data, Alaska has the highest percentage of veterans per capita—13.6 percent of the population. Alaska’s veterans are located throughout the state, from the city of Fairbanks to the most remote villages north of the Arctic Circle.

At the NCSL Military and Veterans Affairs Task Force meeting, members heard from Verdie Bowen, head of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, who explained that Alaska has two sets of veterans—those living on the road system and those living off the road system.

This requires the state to continually reevaluate and adapt programs to meet the needs of its veterans no matter where they live. To reach more veterans, for example, the state has developed a network of trained volunteers and enlisted the help of national organizations such as the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America.

These efforts have dramatically increased applications for state and VA benefits, bringing with them more federal resources to meet demand. A state law providing for veterans designation on driver’s licenses has also proven effective in helping veterans access the benefits to which they are entitled. 

Providing quality health care to veterans in rural areas is also a challenge in Alaska. On this issue, the state has led the way by allowing veterans enrolled in the VA health system to see community health providers instead of traveling to VA facilities hundreds of miles away in Anchorage or even Seattle. This has contributed to substantially lower wait times for new patients. The state also provides telemental health services for veterans suffering from PTSD.

The next meeting of the Military and Veterans Affairs Task Force will take place in Minneapolis as part of NCSL’s Legislative Summit.

Jennifer Schultz is a research analyst in NCSL's Environment, Energy and Transportation program.

Email Jennifer.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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