Called to duty
This month, about 380 Army Reservists and 180 Army National Guardsmen from Hawai‘i will deploy to Iraq, leaving their families and jobs behind.
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Sgt. Michelle Halemano’s young daughters still don’t understand that they won’t see their mother for an entire year. “Mom, you’ll be back from Korea soon!” they tell her, referring to the two weeks of training she has completed annually for the past six years in the U.S. Army Reserves.
No, the single mother explains matter-of-factly to the 5- and 8-year-old girls. Mommy is going to Iraq. She will miss your birthdays and many other special occasions. You will live with extended family on the Big Island. Phone conversations will be rare and limited. But she will be back.
There are no tears from the mother, who essentially said goodbye to her children when training began in November.
“I try to keep that to myself,” Halemano says. “They worry about me.” Dressed in 50 pounds of gear piled on a camouflage battle-dress uniform, her long, black hair tied into a neat bun at the nape of her neck and an M-16 by her side, her voice is calm and measured. There is even a smile. It may be forced, but nobody will hear this 32-year-old reservist complain.
“We all think about our loved ones,” says Halemano, who is also earning her college degree and works full time as an adult corrections officer at the Women’s Correctional Center in Kailua. “Missing a lot of family time, that’s what I’m probably going to be sad about, but that’s just part of being in the military. Now it’s time to focus on our training. I feel a sense of pride. It’s our time. I volunteered. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
This month, about 380 Army Reservists and another 180 Army National Guardsmen just like Halemano are deploying to Iraq from Hawaii alone. They are polite, respectful, hard-working, patriotic young men and women in the prime of their lives, who must put on hold for a year educational pursuits, jobs and, often, relationships, with little contact beyond heavily screened e-mail. Some are shocked and scared. They joined the reserves for financial reasons and counted on doing their duty here at home. Others are taking drastic pay cuts and leaving businesses they hope will survive in their absence. In Iraq, they will operate bulldozers, construct roads and schools, manage supplies, maintain and fly CH-47 Chinook helicopters. They are heading for a country where American soldiers continue to die on a daily basis, yet the majority have jumped into the seven-day-a-week preparations with duty and honor.
“They are the cream of the crop, and push themselves to excel at things,” says Col. Jim Boersema, an Army reservist who had to leave his posts as an owner of Starr Seigle Communications and managing partner of Zanzabar Nightclub in Waikiki to command the 1101 Garrison Support Unit at Schofield Barracks.
They help run the installation and make sure that plumbing, electricity, housing and all other facilities function smoothly on base. Working in conjunction with another unit, Boersema and his company also oversee the training and preparation of many soldiers.
At Schofield Barracks, Boersema, dressed in the standard camouflage battle-dress uniform and receiving salutes from everyone in his path, strides past men and women dismantling and cleaning M-16s on a basketball court. Others amble around in matching shorts and T-shirts, having just finished a run as part of their physical training. Humvees line the road.
Inside a spartan office, Boersema points to an oversize, color-coded “Post-Mobilization Training Plan” poster that determines the hourly schedule of each unit for weeks 14 through 24 after the troops were mobilized, or called to active duty. There’s fitness training, time on the firing range, cleaning of weapons, aircraft maintenance, first-aid instruction. Boersema searches the grids for a rest day. There was one: they gave the soldiers part of Super Bowl Sunday off to watch the game.
Spc. Ryan Agustin of Ewa Beach is less concerned about a day off than he is about his preparation. A self-described Filipino-Spanish local boy, the 23-year-old says he needs to focus on his training right now. He must leave behind his college studies in civil engineering, a girlfriend and two jobs.
But like Halemano, he has found solutions. “I don’t feel any regrets as far as putting my schoolwork on hold,” he says. The law requires that deployed reservists may return to school and be hired back at their former jobs with the same responsibilities. A photographer with Guaranteed Photography, Agustin says his younger brother has taken his place, although he is “stressed” over the added responsibility. While Agustin is gone, his brothers also will manage their mobile DJ business for parties and clubs.
Those left behind shoulder much of the burden. The Army’s family support group earns high praise from soldiers and their relatives. Knowing that families are helping each other can ease soldiers’ stress. Still, families can’t avoid waiting and wondering about their loved ones stationed overseas. It can be agonizing. It doesn’t help that the only news available usually comes from nightly television.
“My mom doesn’t want me to go at all,” says Spc. Marigold Casarino, a 20-year-old Army National Guard reservist and an only child. The National Guard protects the state in peacetime, but must carry out federal missions in times of war. When Casarino joined, she thought she would be able to help her country while remaining in Hawaii, because the Guard is typically a last resort.
The financial independence motivated Casarino to join. She didn’t want to depend solely on her parents; she wanted to help them.