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Greater Fairbanks Golden Heart Chamber of Commerce Honors Military Members at 53rd Annual Military Appreciation Banquet

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Julie Avey
  • 168th Wing

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – The Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce hosted the 53rd annual Military Appreciation Banquet at the Carlson Center August 24, 2023, to pay tribute to military members living and serving in Fairbanks.

Fairbanks Chamber recognized both active duty and Guard and two civilians for their exceptional achievements and volunteer efforts in support of the military community.

"The Military Appreciation Banquet is more than just an event; it's a heartwarming celebration that bridges the gap between our vibrant community and the dedicated military partners who serve among us here in the Interior,” said Lisa Cassino, the master of ceremonies for the banquet and the vice president of public relations for Usibelli Coal Mine, the banquet's presenting sponsor. “This unique evening of dinner and recognition allows us to forge lifelong friendships that unite the community and the military in a shared commitment to honor, respect, and support." 

With more than 600 people in attendance, the community celebrated the military members during the black-tie event.

Lt. Col. Matt McClurg, 168th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, was in attendance supporting the Airmen from the 168th Wing at Eielson. He said, “The amount of support, loyalty, and patriotism the Fairbanks community shows its military members is incredible. Fairbanks businesses and citizens embrace us as an integral part of this community and give us a sense of belonging and friendliness unparalleled to other communities. Fairbanks doesn’t just talk the talk; they show their loyalty in numerous ways to the military community in their action, perfectly demonstrated by the Military Appreciation Banquet.” 

The military appreciation banquet is an annual tradition in Fairbanks and began in the 1960s with Jim Messer, a veteran himself, and his wife, Rosemary. During the early years, the Messers hosted dinners in their home to show gratitude to the service members stationed in the Golden Heart community. As time went on, their in-home dinner became a banquet hosting hundreds of people.

“It was my privilege to plan this extraordinary event for the first time, and it was an experience that touched my soul and revealed the profound love and appreciation our small town has for its military heroes,” said Elora Swan-Song, Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. “The meticulous preparation that went into setting up over 60 tables, folding hundreds of napkins, and polishing each piece of silverware was a testament to the love and respect our community holds for its military presence. Fairbanks, without a doubt, is a military town, and it owes much of its prosperity and vibrancy to the dedicated service of our military personnel.”

Swan-Song was honored to give back to military members as part of the Fairbanks Chamber. She said, “What makes this event truly exceptional is the unity it fosters. People from diverse backgrounds and organizations, with varying views and ideas, join forces as one cohesive team to ensure we honor those who make immense sacrifices to protect our freedom. It is a powerful reminder that when it comes to appreciating our military, there are no boundaries or divisions. We are all united by a single purpose: to express our gratitude and admiration for the selflessness and bravery of those who serve.”

Gen. Ken S. Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces, The Air Component Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and the executive director of Pacific Air Combat Operation, was the distinguished guest speaker who spoke about the importance of Alaska and its strategic importance for a free and open Indo-Pacific for the world.

“Alaska is closer to Taiwan than Hawaii is, “which is why it’s so important we have the Air Force and Army Forces here and can deploy at a moment's notice if we need them to go forward.”

He said the military can do training in Alaska they can’t do in the rest of the world, and we couldn’t do that without the support of Alaskans.
“This place is an amazing place to train,” Wilsbach said. “We are so grateful for what we can do here to train to be ready for when you call us to execute our mission.”

Wilsbach has been stationed in Alaska multiple times and said Alaska is his home. He shared a story about being invited to someone’s home with their family for Christmas and the tremendous support he received here. He said the communities around bases and posts are friendly to the military, but that support is bigger and better in Alaska.

Wilsbach said Alaskans appreciate military members who serve and put it into action, and that’s why so many military members come to Alaska and retire. “It’s not just the place, it’s the people.”

Community members were paired up with military guests at the dinner tables.  

“The support from the Golden Heart community felt palpable tonight,” said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Mangini, 168th Wing. “This inspires me to honor that tradition and pay it forward to this wonderful community as I transition into my civilian career at UAF. “In the coming years, I will reciprocate the support in my research and by being a future sponsor of this sacred annual Military Appreciation Dinner. That is what Alaskans have taught me to do, Alaskans help Alaskans in uniform and beyond.”

In a pre-recorded message, honorary host Sen. Lisa Murkowski thanked the military for their service and the difference they make and the community for supporting them. She shared her memories of growing up attending Fairbanks Military Appreciation banquets. 

Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce members go the extra mile in making the details perfect for the event to honor and celebrate military members. The evening was full of gratitude for the community to both military and community members. 

“As the planner of this event, it was a profound honor to dedicate my time and efforts to uplift our nation and protectors,” said Swan-Song. “However, the most awe-inspiring moment came during the banquet itself. Standing in a room filled with beautifully dressed individuals, I couldn’t help but be humbled and moved. Each person in that room, in their unique way, is making daily sacrifices for the sake of our community and our nation. It was a sobering reminder that the spirit of unity and gratitude can truly transform a simple banquet into a profound symbol of appreciation and respect for those who stand on the front lines to defend our freedom.”

Military dignitaries included the commander of Alaskan NORAD Region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, 354th Wing Commander Col. Paul Townsend, Fort Wainwright Commander Col. Jason Cole, Chief Master Sgt. David Wolfe, Col. Nate Surrey, 168th Wing Commander Col. Michael Griesbaum, USAG Alaska Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Ruben Murillo, and Col. Tom Burke.

Military leaders delivered the Jim Messer Award to Mayor Bryce Ward for his efforts advocating for military quality of life initiatives and housing developments, building and leasing homes as a contractor, owning a small business, and serving the community as a servant leader. Ward thanked the community and told the crowd he was honored to receive the award.