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It is a little known episode in American history. During World War II, the Japanese invaded and briefly held North American territory in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska.
In response, the U.S. Army created the Alaska Territorial Guard, or Eskimo Scouts: 6,000 volunteers who knew how to fight and survive in the Arctic terrain. It took half a century for these soldiers to get recognition as veterans. And now, there's a push to get benefits for the surviving members and their families. NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this report from Nome, Alaska.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Clyde Iyatunguk grew up hearing stories about the U.S. Army colonel who helped his father trade a spear for a rifle.
CLYDE IYATUNGUK: Colonel Muktuk Marston. Yes, he is a white colonel.
LAWRENCE: Colonel Muktuk Marston got his nickname after an Eskimo eating contest. Muktuk is sort of whale-skin bacon, but raw.
IYATUNGUK: During World War II, he came up to Alaska. America was being attacked by the Japanese, and if anybody wanted to volunteer, so Dad, you know, stood up and said OK.
LAWRENCE: Dad is Laban Iyatunguk, now 82. When World War II broke out, he was just a kid, but he lied about his age and signed up for the Alaska Territorial Guard, or ATG.
LABAN IYATUNGUK: Being Alaskan, and here our enemies were down in Aleutian. There was war. That was the war, you know?
LAWRENCE: The ATG never had to repulse an invasion. They did rescue a downed U.S. pilot and secured key airfields. The Alaska Territorial Guard dissolved at the end of the war.
IYATUNGUK: Well, ATG was almost kind of forgotten branch that took part in World War II.
LAWRENCE: Forgotten until the year 2000, when the Alaska Territorial Guard got veteran status. A few years later, Iyatunguk got a thick packet in the mail. He chucked it under the television. He and his son Clyde came to the VFW this month with other local vets to meet a group visiting from the VA in Washington. But Laban Iyatunguk still found the red tape daunting, and he walked out.
IYATUNGUK: What good paperwork going to do? You know, I've been waiting and waiting and nothing's happened. What they doing, waiting till we're six feet underground?
LAWRENCE: His son Clyde promises to get him registered, which could mean a pension and a home loan. Most ATG vets never got even that. Of 6,300 who served, only dozens are still living, several of them here in Nome. One of them, Frankie Kuzuguk, is just five minutes away from the VFW. He lives in a nursing home at the regional hospital.
CHRISTINE SHULTZ: Mr. Kuzuguk has some periods of confusion, and what I can say is that the one thing he consistently talks about is his time in the Army. Having the military come and recognize him would the most important thing that could have happened.
LAWRENCE: That's Christine Shultz. She directs social services at the hospital. Kuzuguk is 82. He also joined the guard young. The visitors from the VA came to present him with his honorable discharge. It's seven decades late. But that makes him eligible for benefits. Tommy Sowers, a VA official, gave him his papers.
TOMMY SOWERS: This is your discharge paperwork.
FRANKIE KUZUGUK: Thank you.
SOWERS: You want to smile for a photo?
KUZUGUK: I was in the United States Army, early days.
LAWRENCE: His youngest daughter, Marilyn, came for the ceremony.
MARILYN KUZUGUK: Dad, all these awards are for you. So that's why everybody is here...
KUZUGUK: Oh, yeah. OK.
KUZUGUK: ...to celebrate you serving.
KUZUGUK: All right.
KUZUGUK: I'm very glad you guys are here today.
SOWERS: Thank you, Frankie. It's an honor to be here. Thank you for your service to your country.
LAWRENCE: Even for those never recognized for their service in life one last benefit remains: a U.S. military headstone to mark their grave. It's the most common benefit delivered to the members of the Alaska Territorial Guard. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Quil has one more story from Alaska about the challenges of getting medical care to veterans in remote parts of the state.
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