ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald paid tribute Wednesday to those who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II.

McDonald addressed seven surviving members of the largely Native citizens militia during a ceremony in the northwest Alaska town of Kotzebue.

Representatives of the event say the veterans attending the ceremony came from Kotzebue and three Alaska Native villages.

In his brief speech, McDonald said he had met earlier with each member attending.

He also presented them with Department of Veterans Affairs "challenge coins." McDonald said the coins are a military tradition to present to soldiers for deeds well done.

"This is my way of recognizing every one of the ATG members, thanking them for their service to our country," he said.

Alaska was still 17 years away from statehood when the 6,400-member militia was formed in 1942 to defend the vast territory from the threat of Japanese invasion.

The unit was activated after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and points along Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The volunteer militia members, nicknamed Uncle Sam's Men and Eskimo Scouts, stepped in to watch over the 586,000-square-mile territory, which was vulnerable to further attack with the Alaska National Guard already pressed into federal service.

Wendell Booth displays a commemorative coin awarded to him by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald at an Aug. 12 ceremony in Kotzebue, Alaska.

Photo Credit: Luke Magnusson/NANA Regional Corp. via AP

The militia disbanded with little fanfare in March 1947. Members of the militia weren't formally recognized by the Army at U.S. military veterans until 2004.

In 2009, the pensions of 26 elderly militia veterans were temporarily reduced because of a new interpretation of a law passed earlier by Congress that had recognized the territorial guard service as federal active duty.

At the time, the Defense Department said an analysis of the law determined the service no longer counted toward the military's 20-year minimum for retirement pay.

Later that year, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she prodded the Pentagon to implement language in theNational Defense Authorization Act directing the military to count service in the territorial guard during World War II.

Surviving members who attended Wednesday's ceremony could not immediately be reached for comment.

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