Nicknamed “America’s Arctic Warriors,” United States Army Alaska (USARAK) is part of the United States Army Pacific and headquartered at Fort Richardson in Anchorage. It’s home to more than 10,000 active-duty soldiers, almost 7,000 of whom were deployed to Afghanistan during the last two years.
For many of those troops, heading into a war zone means leaving wives and children behind. For those military families, there’s not only the stress of dealing with a husband in harm’s way but also coping with the harsh conditions of life in America’s northernmost state.
Premiering Sunday, Nov. 18, on OWN (then airing on Mondays), the eight-episode docu-series “Married to the Army: Alaska,” shot starting in March of this year, follows the lives of seven Army wives. They are Yolanda Goins (Harker Heights, Texas), Blair Flanagan (Lynchburg, Va.), Lindsey Bergeron (Alexandria, La.), Rynn Randall (Atlanta, Texas), Traci Moran (Baltimore, Md.), Salina Tillman (El Paso, Texas) and Tessara Dunlap (Bastrop, Texas).
“Army brat” Goins is married to Morris Goins (at top), the Brigade Commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division; Ferguson is married to a staff sergeant; Bergeron and Randall’s husbands are majors; Tillman is wed to a sergeant; and Dunlap and Moran’s husbands are specialists.
Executive producer for “Married to the Army: Alaska” is Stephanie Noonan Drachkovitch, herself an Army brat, who persevered for five years to get the approval and access to shoot the series.
During the course of filming, she discovered that the most unlikely things can affect the wives. While waiting for a soldier to return on leave is stressful enough — since there’s not a lot of notice, and troops’ flight schedules are subject to change — one homecoming ran up against a very particular issue.
“In the second episode [Blair Flanagan] is waiting for her husband,” Drachkovitch says. “She’s all excited; she’s going shopping for lingerie. It’s really cute. And she gets a call that he’s delayed, and the reason he’s delayed, get this — world events impacting their lives and our show — President Obama had gone to visit.
“While everybody was excited about it, they had to get him out of the country, so it was a trickle-down effect to all the guys. She was so upset. Brian was excited to have him there, but now, she said, ‘Who’d have thought the president of the United States would impact my husband coming home?'”
The “Long War” in Afghanistan began in the fall of 2001, and the protracted nature of the conflict has taken a toll on fighting forces.
“Two of our cast members,” says Drachkovitch, “were both on their fourth deployment. One of them is on his third; a couple on two; and a couple on their first. The Army has a saying: the strength of a nation is in its army, the strength of an Army is its soldiers, but the strength of a soldier is the family. So, this show does capture that.”
Of course, even a delayed homecoming is still a joyful homecoming once that soldier walks through the door — something that doesn’t always happen.
“We started production about 100 days into deployment,” says Drachkovitch, “and they still hadn’t had a KIA. Of course, it’s one of the main reasons we’re doing the show, to show what life is like when you don’t know if your husband’s coming home.
“But I don’t think any of us expected, in our second week of taping, for that to become reality.”
During filming of a housewarming party for one of the spouses, several of the attendees began to realize they hadn’t heard from their loved ones because they were “on blackout.”
“As producers,” says Drachkovitch,” we’re like, ‘What does that mean?’ We don’t know. Then it gets explained to us that blackout means when there’s been a killed-in-action or an injury. They shut down all communications, so that there’s not improper notification.
“So, we’re sitting there, going, ‘All right, do we know what happened?’ Each of them is thinking the door knock could be theirs. So we were there for that. As it turned up, they had their first KIA. So, we attended the brigade’s first memorial service.
According to Drachkovitch, the Army didn’t shy away from having that depicted.
“The commanding general called and said, ‘This is what happened. We want you to show this part of the story. This is what we live with; we want people to see this. Also, we want you to show how we honor our fallen soldiers.’
“I have now been to four memorial services. I spent my whole life as an Army brat and had never been to one.”