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Operation Islander

As we were working on our Islander of the Year feature for this issue, something unexpected happened.

John Heckathorn
We define Islander of the Year as the person or persons who had the most impact on the rest of us over the past year. We made The Hawai'i Soldier our Islander of the Year, because we realized the war in Iraq had had a powerful effect on Island life.

Not only were nearly 10,000 regular troops stationed in Hawai'i sent to the Middle East, emptying bases and the small businesses surrounding them, but 2,000 Hawai'i men and women were mobilized as part of the National Guard's 29th Brigade Combat Team. They left their homes in August for six months of training in Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Polk, La. In March, they will depart for a year in Iraq.

Hawai'i has not deployed this many Guard members since the Vietnam War. As you can imagine, these 18-month separations can be difficult for many local families and businesses. Most of these men and women have civilian jobs-they're students, police officers, construction workers, executives.

In the course of telling their stories, and the stories of the families they left behind, we discovered a sad fact. The Guard was giving the troops two weeks of holiday leave during Christmas, but not flying them back to the Islands. Many of them could not afford the airfare home.

Enter Ame Frey. One evening last fall, Frey was watching the news. That was a rare event for the 30-year-old mother of two. Her husband, Shane, was a Marine captain flying helicopters in Iraq. She had her 5-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter to care for. She volunteered one day a week for Meals on Wheels and two days a week at St. Anthony's in Kailua, where her son attends kindergarten, all the while studying full-time for a master's degree. She was usually too busy to watch television.

Photo: Alex Viarnes

On the news, she heard about the plight of the Guard troops and, even though she knew none of them nor any of their families, "I knew I had to do something." She sat down that night and fired off 100 e-mails.

In short order, she formed a nonprofit, Home for the Holidays, and began to attract publicity and contributions. People responded with both cash and frequent-flier miles; Frey ended up making the travel arrangements for the soldiers herself.

When we talked to her, she'd purchased tickets for about half the 106 soldiers on her list. "I'm not getting much sleep," she said, "but I'm going to keep plugging away until I run out of money or out of time."

We didn't call Frey to get a story. We called because we were personally touched by her efforts. We managed to be a little help. Obviously, many other Islanders were touched as well.

"I've been in Hawai'i for four years," says Frey. "From the day I arrived, I could feel the aloha." Unlike some military wives, Frey never felt out of place, never felt isolated from the larger Island community. "I knew that if any state could support its troops, it would be Hawai'i. I don't think I could have done what I've done anywhere else. The rest of the United States could take lessons."

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,January

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