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Alaska community sends first-term service members to Katmai National Park in remembrance of 9/11

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Mario Calabro
  • 673d Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The roaring waterfall reverberates, calling out to the residents in Katmai. Answering the call is not the traditional local, but instead a swarm of brown bears, hungrily awaiting the arrival of salmon.  

Only 50 yards away stands a boardwalk with onlookers eagerly watching the bears cascade up the falls, ready to witness them catch and devour fresh salmon. Among those watching are four first-term active-duty military members from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson - U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Chisom Lever, Airmen Miguel Zamora Montecinos and Johnathan Romero, and U.S. Army Private Gary Smith. 

These young service members were selected as an initiative to honor the military and commemorate the sacrifices made on Sept. 11, 2001. The trip also helped these service members explore Alaska and meet new people. 

The initiative was ultimately sparked by Gary Porter, a floatplane pilot and owner of an Alaskan bear viewing company. 

“I didn’t want high-ranking members,” Porter exclaimed, “I wanted brand new guys, the E-1s to E-3s that didn’t have the money to be able to go on a trip like this.” 

The trip had the members flown out to Katmai National Park where they would watch brown bears in their natural habitat. The next day they would hop on a water taxi and drive out to Grewingk Glacier for a three-mile glacier scenic hike. Afterwards, they left to take a short trip to observe sea otters floating on the water nearby.

The incentive trip was ultimately made possible thanks to the efforts of Mary Jo Porter, a family friend of Gary Porter, who coordinated with local businesses to allow these young service members the opportunity of a lifetime. 

“Nobody’s gonna be outdone in Homer,” Mary Jo stated, “I called a lady I had never met before who ran a local lodge and asked for a reasonable price on the rooms, and mentioned that we were donating seats [on our flight] to the military to go bear viewing in remembrance of 9/11. After she heard that, she said she wanted to donate rooms. Then all the other companies just followed suit once they heard the same.”

The efforts put in place helped the service members, who were all new to Alaska, gain the confidence to pursue the plethora of outdoor activities Alaska provides. 

“I live in the dorms, and I haven’t been getting out and exploring Alaska... I’ve gone snowboarding, but that’s it,” Zamora said. ”[This trip] helped me get used to Alaska, and now I wanna go out and try other hikes, and I wanna go do more.” 

Over the course of the trip, the group learned about each other and developed a strong bond as they explored Homer.    

“I liked that we all had a different personality, the fact that we were all just so dynamic, the whole time it was fun, there was never a dull moment,” Romero said, “Even then on the hike, I didn’t realize we had hiked because of our funny conversations. Despite not knowing who anyone was, we just got to know each other because of our personalities.”