Staff Sergeant Tom McArthur of the Alaska Air National Guard practices it regularly: rappelling by rope from a helicopter. Whether it’s to rescue people who are lost in the woods, who are stranded because of a snowmobile accident, or who have been attacked by animals, making that descent is a standard part of his job.
So after descending from a height of 70 feet on Wednesday with the torch for the 2019 National Veterans Golden Age Games in Anchorage, Alaska, he sounded nonchalant about it.
“We’re pretty consistent about this,” McArthur says. “It’s one of the things we train for. Throughout the year, we do it a number of times.”
McCarthur’s breathtaking feat was the opening stage of a ceremonial passing of the torch, the theme of which was “Mission Impossible.”
The torch will be on display during the “Parade of Athletes” at the opening ceremonies of the Golden Age Games on Thursday evening at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. The Golden Age Games, which include nearly 900 Veterans age 55 and older and serve as one of VA’s premier sports events, began on Wednesday and run until Monday.
On a clear, sunny day amid the backdrop of the snow-sprinkled Chugach Mountains outside of Anchorage, McArthur descended from a Black Hawk helicopter that hovered over the fairway of the 10th hole at the Moose Run Golf Course. One of his colleagues, Technical Sergeant Jason Hughes, rappelled just before him.
McArthur ran for a short distance with the gold-covered torch and handed it off. Master Sergeant Chris Bowerfind of the Alaska Air National Guard. Bowerfind and 21 other people then ran three-quarters of a mile in one direction along Arctic Valley Road, which is parallel to the golf course, and three-quarters of a mile in the other direction back to the starting point.
Taml, an emotional support dog who has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, ran alongside Bowerfind. He was also accompanied by four officials from the Alaska VA Healthcare System, which is sponsoring this year’s Golden Age Games, some Veterans who are competing in the event, and members of the local community that support VA and the military.
The officials from the Alaska VA Healthcare System included Dr. Tim Ballard, director of the facility. He’s excited that the Alaska VA is sponsoring the Golden Age Games.
“We’re one of the smallest VA stations in the country,” he says. “So for us to be given this opportunity is really great. It’s a testament to our staff who are very dedicated to taking care of Veterans. Often times, it’s the big facilities that get this sort of stuff. So it’s really cool that we’re a small fry in a great big VA, and we’re having an opportunity to host this event.”
Ballard explains that even though the Alaska VA is an outpatient ambulatory care facility, it has a major partnership with Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage, a combined Army and Air Force installation.
“We have in-patient staff assigned to the hospital at JBER who see both Department of Defense and VA patients,” he says. “Roughly 85 members of our staff are embedded in JBER doing many inpatient activities. We’ve got a myriad of staff that are in the specialty clinics over there, including orthopedics, urology, cardiology, and the like. So even though we are outpatient from VA’s perspective, we really consider JBER’s hospital our hospital.”
Mike Richman is a writer and editor in VA’s Office of Research and Development. He joined VA in 2016. He previously worked at the Voice of America, one of the U.S.-funded broadcast agencies.