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.

Army reservist Col. Jim Boersema at Schofield Barracks.

Photo: Katherine Nichols


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.

Spc. Ryan Agustin in front of the Hummer he drives.

Photo: Katherine Nichols

The evening news, she says, “scares them a lot.” In Iraq, she will refuel Chinook cargo helicopters. She admits that her mobilization was frightening initially, and she was disappointed to interrupt her studies toward a nursing degree. But “you learn how to be strong about it,” Casarino says. “The training kind of builds up your confidence. It gets you prepared.”

That is one advantage families don’t have. “Because we know what needs to be done, we take it better than our loved ones,” says Halemano, who is part Hawaiian. “The stressful part comes from the family that’s wondering all the time. All we can do is reassure them.”

Spc. Dwayne Torres, a refueler in the Army National Guard, says his mother is “all worried” and very much against his deployment. His father, who also served in the Reserves, is more tolerant.

Agustin’s family is sad, “but they understand.” However, he avoids the news, “because all I see is the negative stuff. It makes our family feel so uncomfortable. My parents get so emotional—especially my mother. I tell her, Mom, I’m avoiding that right now; you should avoid that, too.’”

While public opposition to our role in Iraq is vocal, it’s not nearly as intense as the resistance throughout the United States during the Vietnam War, says Boersema, a Vietnam combat veteran. Still, it’s important for these young reservists and their families to believe they are risking their lives to do what’s right for their country and the world. Any views to the contrary get ignored.

“Personally, I don’t like to hear the politics,” says Halemano. “Bottom line, we need to just take care of the mission. We’re going to be there to do it, whether it’s building a school house, a road or an airport.”

Casarino feels confident they should go to Iraq to help residents obtain the same personal freedom Americans often take for granted.

It’s also important to help rebuild the city, says Agustin, who will operate heavy equipment in Iraq. His parents raised him to help anyone who is struggling, and he understands this is his role for the next year.

When asked what deployment means for his relationship with his girlfriend, he turns away and says he isn’t sure what will happen. Then, with conviction, he adds that he knows where his focus should be: “Once the uniform is on, we work.”

Unlike Casarino, whose boyfriend plans to wait for her, Torres told his girlfriend to “enjoy life” while he is gone. But that doesn’t make it any easier. “I’m going to write her every day. I know it’s going to be delayed [for screening purposes], but at least she’ll know that my heart is there. It’s going to be a rough time.”

There are no guidelines for the most difficult of tests for a relationship—a long and uncertain separation. Yet between mobilization and deployment, soldiers endure months of intensive preparation for everything else. The Army administers medical and dental examinations. Makes sure they have power of attorney for their next of kin. Updates personal and financial records. Issues proper equipment: light brown “desert” camouflage battle dress to blend with Iraq’s sandy terrain, gas masks, canteens, machine guns. And demands plenty of training.

“When they get in the theater, they’re in the best possible shape they can be,” says Boersema. “They will feel reassured they’ve got all their equipment, and they know their families are taken care of.”

Torres knows that the experience will change him, make him more independent. His quick introduction to war came when the 21-year-old signed his life insurance papers. “That kind of woke me up. I never thought I would have to do that at this age.”

The size of the active Army has shrunk over the past 10 years, so there’s more reliance on the Reserves and National Guard, according to Boersema. Excuses for company managers, mothers, fathers or students are no longer acceptable to avoid mobilization. “All of us in the Reserves and National Guard knew such a thing could happen,” he says. Sept. 11 changed everything. “You think, Well, sooner or later my turn is going to come.’ You just prepare yourself mentally for that.” Though qualified people are running his businesses for the year, he admits, “you have some concern in the pit of your stomach.”

Torres doesn’t believe that his status as a student or employee for Victoria Ward Security entitles him to stay home. “We all have obligations to fulfill. I want to do my part.”

But don’t mistake patriotism for enthusiasm. “If you’re a soldier, you probably dislike war more than anyone,” says Boersema, a 30-year Army veteran. What makes the job more manageable is the support community members in Hawaii give their troops. “I think if you feel you’re doing something worthwhile, it makes it easier.”

Torres agrees. “In my opinion, everything that we’re fighting for is the right thing. It’s not only for us. It’s not by what nationality you are, it’s not by what race. It’s all of us as human beings.”

Though still living at home with his parents, he is confident he will return a more independent person, “a better man,” with a “good sense of wisdom.”

Maj. Chuck Anthony of the Air National Guard is sure of this. “There’s no question that people will experience professional and personal growth. You can’t go into anything like that without honing leadership skills,” said the public affairs officer, who volunteered to go to Iraq after several days of discussion with his wife. His reasons? “It’s what I do. I want to challenge myself. I’m helping in the way that I’ve been trained to help.”

This sense of duty is reason enough for many. “I feel it’s a good cause,” says Guardsman Torres. “It’s hard, but someone’s got to do it. This is our calling. This is what we’re here for.”