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On billet night, some cadets learn they're bound for Coast Guard icebreakers in Arctic

The first trip in nearly 40 years by the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star, the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, to the winter Arctic is the latest sign that the Coast Guard intends to have a greater presence in that region in the years to come.

The ship’s commanding officer, in an interview following this winter’s mission, said the 12-week deployment to the Bering Strait region helped the crew “better understand and prepare for the challenges of operating in such an unforgiving environment.”

A group of Coast Guard Academy cadets will soon be a part of those efforts.

The Class of 2021 found out its post-graduation assignments Thursday night during the academy's annual billet night ceremony, the first time the class had gathered together in one room since the coronavirus pandemic began.

First-class Cadet Aidan Uvanni of Deerfield, N.Y., is among four cadets assigned to the Seattle-based Polar Star, which is capable of breaking through ice up to 21 feet thick. The icebreaker was his first choice, he said, given its unique mission.

"I wanted to experience a new part of world," Uvanni said.

First-class Cadet Drusilla Corbett of San Angelo, Texas, who also is headed to the Polar Star, said the Coast Guard's icebreakers offer "once-in-a-lifetime opportunities."

Another four cadets are headed to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the service's other operational icebreaker.

“This group (of cadets) in particular is going to see a lot of international engagement opportunities,” said Cara Condit, executive director of the Center for Arctic Study and Policy, which is based at the academy. “They’ll be learning how to represent U.S. interests with our allies in Iceland, Greenland, Denmark and Canada.”

The U.S. is rushing to catch up with Russia’s and China’s growing military presence in the Arctic, where a melting polar ice cap is leading to increased human activity and the possibility of new, faster shipping routes.

Coast Guard officials have testified in Congress in recent years that the service needs major equipment upgrades, including a new fleet of heavy icebreakers that can operate in the Arctic, to be able to execute missions in that harsh environment. But the Coast Guard also has a strategic role to play.

“Now we have to think about who else is up there and understand what their intentions are from a geopolitical and global scale,” Condit said.

Cadets also are learning how the Coast Guard can better support Alaskan Natives and how the service can rely on their expertise in the region.

“They know how to manage the land sustainably, how to survive. This is not the last frontier,” Condit said. “We are beginning to think about how to support them, how to recognize them as leaders in their own land.”

Condit said she’s talked with the academy's admissions department about recruiting cadets from Alaska. 

"We don’t have an Alaskan Native cadet. That's an issue because having that diversity included actually makes us better able to serve that region and start to prepare some of the people in that region to go back into the community and be a bigger part of the search and rescue and first responder missions," she said.

j.bergman@theday.com 

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