By Angie Poole

Not far from Santa’s house and all his reindeer in the North Pole lies a small military installation in Fairbanks, Alaska. The installation, called Fort Wainwright, is home to the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, half of which is currently deployed on the front lines fighting alongside a Joint Task Force in Operation Inherent Resolve.

But for those service members holding down the home front, life at Fort Wainwright can be surprisingly challenging, too.

Army Spc. Turner-Youngblood poses with this prize. | Photo credit USO Alaska

In addition to being a first duty station for several troops (i.e. their first time living away from home), military life in Alaska’s arctic tundra poses its own set of difficulties. Cold weather, prolonged darkness, remote isolation and sub-zero temperatures – all combined with the rigor of military training – can increase the risk of suicide for many. This year alone, the local community has lost too many and is sadly leading the nation in suicides.

To combat this, the USO team has geared its programming around halting and reversing these heartbreaking statistics by creating fun ways to encourage soldiers to wander out of their barracks, socialize and engage in community activities.

One of these activities this holiday season was G.I. Joe in the Snow. A grizzled uncle to “Elf on the Shelf,” G.I. Joe in the Snow is a military spin on the classic child holiday toy.

Much like a parent would hide the “Elf on the Shelf” around the house on the days leading up to Christmas, so too, have USO team members hidden these little action figures all across base throughout the month of December.

Photo credit USO Alaska

Whenever a soldier finds one and returns him safely to the USO, they then received an early Christmas gift, which is designed to encourage socialization with others and boost morale.

Army Cpl. Tyler Larson poses with his prize. | Photo credit USO Alaska

So far, the program has been a major success, and several military family members have won a slew of prizes.

Houston native and Army Spc. Turner-Youngblood spotted a G.I. Joe in the Snow scaling an ice sculpture outside of a dining facility and received a brand new fishing rod and reel and pair of hunting knives. Turner-Youngblood plans on going ice fishing with his fellow soldiers for his first time ever this winter.

Similarly, after spotting G.I. Joe in the Snow, Army Cpl. Tyler Larson won an authentic Alaskan ulu knife and six tickets to the theater. He plans on taking a whole crew of friends and family to see Frozen II, courtesy of the USO.

Even military kids wanted in on the action! One military child, Steven Hildebrand spotted and returned G.I. Joe in the Snow for several items from the USO’s kids grab bag.

Steven Hildebrand poses with his prize. | Photo credit USO Alaska

He plans to spray all three of his sisters with his new silly string in a surprise attack, while making sure he grabbed an additional can for them to fight back with!

Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Minnick was another lucky winner, and said that he and his family have had so much fun searching all over Fort Wainwright each day for the G.I. Joe in the Snow.

It was truly a team effort, and they are so excited to use their winnings for their upcoming Friday family game and movie night.

As word of the winnings spread far and wide, the USO family got to meet so many wonderful service members and reminded them of the many offerings the USO has for them and their families.

Photo credit USO Alaska

Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Minnick and his family poses with their prize.