“It has been a pretty powerful thing.” Stories of healing drive veteran’s mission
Though he’s the one getting the recognition, Kirk Alkire is clear about who he works for.
“This whole thing is not about me,” said Alkire, who led an effort to name a peak in the Chugach Mountains “Gold Star Peak” in recognition of families who have lost loved ones in the military.
An Army veteran who served two tours of active duty and lost several close friends in combat, Alkire said his mission from the start has been to help honor those who have given their hearts and lives in the name of service.
“We should recognize and honor the family members of these fallen people,” he said.
After working to name the mountain earlier this year, Alkire thought his work was done. But as he began guiding Gold Star family members up the 4,148-foot peak near Eklutna Lake, he realized something special was happening.
“We found that it’s extremely healing, it’s emotional, it’s therapeutic,” he said. “It’s also rewarding for the Gold Stars to climb to the summit because they’re carrying such a heavy load climbing in honor of their fallen loved one.”
So Alkire started a nonprofit organization called Gold Star Peak Alaska, whose sole mission is to take families to the top of the mountain. He’s enlisted fellow former servicemen and women to help, and so far this summer, Alkire himself has made the steep, 1.6-mile climb 23 times. So far, the group has brought more than 80 veterans and Gold Star family members to the top — and each trip has been special.
“Amazing things have happened from climbing with regards to people’s dealing with their own grief,” he said.
One such trip occurred when Alkire led a 9-year-old boy to the top.
“He doesn’t have a place to go to think about his dad in Anchorage, so it was a pretty awesome experience when I took that 9-year-old kid to the summit,” he said.
Another time, Alkire and a group of veterans led a father and daughter to the top. Along the way, the dad began to open up about the son he lost in combat. The emotional conversation wasn’t out of the ordinary — people frequently talk about their loved ones on the climb, he said. What was unusual was what he heard from the daughter afterward.
It turned out the father had never talked about his son’s death to anyone, not even family.
“Little did we know that was the first time he had done that,” Alkire said. “And the most impactful thing in her message was that her brother — his son — had died in 2002. The dad had been carrying that around for all these years.”
Alkire is quick to point out he and his fellow veterans aren’t psychiatrists. Instead, they’re just former service members who understand what Gold Star families are going through.
“We’re not therapists, we’re not doctors, but we all have shared an enormous amount of loss amongst ourselves,” he said.
The peak is near another mountain also named in honor of service members — Mount POW/MIA — and between the two, the mountains have created a way for both service members and military families to work through their grief by climbing.
“It has been a pretty powerful thing, especially for some of our veterans that are struggling and dealing with their own personal loss,” he said.
That group includes Alkire himself.
Having lived in the Eagle River area for the past two decades, he routinely made the pilgrimage to the top of Mount POW/MIA.
In 2007, he was with the Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division (Airborne) in Iraq when several of the brigade’s members were kidnapped and subsequently executed. In total, the brigade lost 53 paratroopers during its 15-month deployment.
“During that deployment, the mountain took on a whole different meaning for me,” he said.
That’s what spurred Alkire to work on the Gold Peak project, for which he’s received recognition from the likes of U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and the Alaska Legislature. In early 2018, the peak was officially renamed, and on Thursday, Alkire was presented a legislative proclamation by Rep. Dan Saddler.
Alkire retired from the Army in 2008 as a first sergeant and returned to JBER to work as a civilian employee. But it’s his work with military families on Gold Star Peak that has become his passion.
“We have kind of a mantra,” he said. “These mountains absolutely heal.”
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected]