Islander of the Year – The Hawai‘i Soldier
More than 16,000 Hawai‘i troops have deployed to the Middle East. Back home, thousands of Island families and businesses cope with their absence.
Last January, Laurie Naumu drove her husband, Michael, to Honolulu International Airport, knowing she wouldn’t see him for more than a year. She cried when she said goodbye. She’s cried on many days since. Even though a year has passed, getting by without him hasn’t gotten any easier.
Michael is a 39-year-old carpenter who enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves six years ago, just for the extra money. It didn’t cross his mind, or Laurie’s either, that he would ever go to war. But last January, Michael and 250 Hawai’i reservists with the 411th Engineering Battalion left for the Mainland for three months of training. Last March, Michael deployed to Iraq, leaving Laurie and their four children behind in Hawai’i.
More than 10,000 miles away, Michael is building bridges, repairing highways and conducting military checkpoints in Baghdad. Once the Iraqi elections are held this month, his battalion will support the country’s new provisional government.
Laurie tries to fill in the void while her husband is gone. It’s harder than she thought it would be, for lots of reasons. Active-duty pay for specialists such as Michael amounts to half his salary as a carpenter.
But it’s the smaller things that trouble Laurie the most. She knows the milestones Michael has missed-Royce graduating from preschool, Taylor’s softball tournament, Ian’s soccer season, Jennifer returning home from college on the Mainland, all of their birthdays, including her own. This New Year’s was the first she could remember that they didn’t set off long strings of red-papered firecrackers. That is Michael’s job.
Before dinner every night, Laurie and her four children say a short prayer for him.
“The hard part is you can’t just pick up the phone and call him and say, ‘Where are you?'” Laurie says. “And you can’t understand why they just can’t call. It’s military life. That’s been the hardest thing-not knowing, having to live it their way. It’s not your life anymore.”
On March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq in the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hundreds of troops based in Hawai’i deployed to the Persian Gulf. President George W. Bush declared an end to “major combat operations” just two months later. But today, there are more than 16,000 troops from Hawai’i serving in the Middle East, including more than 2,000 members of the Hawai’i National Guard and Army Reserves.
These military deployments have affected Hawai’i residents more than any other event in 2004. That’s why HONOLULU Magazine has named “The Hawai’i Soldier” Islander of the Year. We’ve always defined the Islander of the Year as the person who’s had the most impact on Island life over the past 12 months. The war has changed life for these troops, as well as their families, their workplaces and their Island communities.
At Hickam Air Force Base, more than 1,400 airmen were deployed last year. Service members and civilians who remain in Hawai’i shoulder the extra work, so day-to-day missions can be accomplished. In Wahiawä, the town seems emptier without the Schofield Barracks soldiers who’ve left for the Middle East.
“I wouldn’t call it a ghost town, but there are 10,000 soldiers gone,” says Sgt. Washington Kendrick, public affairs officer at Schofield Barracks. “I notice it in little ways. The drive-throughs don’t have lines at lunch. The dry cleaners, places where you would normally see soldiers-they aren’t there anymore.”
Hawai’i has not deployed this many members of its National Guard and Army Reserves since the Vietnam War, more than 30 years ago. These are not active-duty members of the military. Most of the 2,000 deployed soldiers have civilian day jobs-teachers, construction workers, executives and so on. There are 18-year-old college students and 57-year-old grandfathers, some of whom are already veterans of war, from nearly all islands.
At least 47 Honolulu police officers and 12 fire department employees have deployed to the Middle East.
Some of Hawai’i’s small businesses have taken big hits. Eric Carson, president of Reflections Glass Co. in Waipahu, has to get by without his shop foreman, one of just 30 workers.
“He has skills that no other employee has,” Carson says. “We actually had to hire a technician to come from the Mainland, at a huge expense, to retrain our staff. You won’t find anyone more supportive of what the military is doing in Iraq than me, but it does come at a cost. Not only is it significant to taxpayers, it’s a tremendous burden on small businesses.”
In downtown Honolulu, public relations firm Communications Pacific, which has about 58 employees, is still adjusting to the absence of its vice president of civic affairs and community group, Frank Cho. Cho is now one of more than 2,000 Hawai’i National Guard members training in Fort Bliss, Texas, for deployment to Iraq in March.
“We always maintained that, in the event he’d be called up, we would continue to be supportive of his family as well as his position here at the company,” says CommPac’s executive vice president, Christina Kemmer. “Obviously, we miss his professional expertise and skills, because Frank had an unusual combination of being able to do community building and make recommendations on media perceptions.”
While Cho is training at Fort Bliss, he maintains regular contact with the company through e-mail and phone calls, Kemmer says. But the company knows that communications will be much harder once Cho reaches Iraq.
For now, “We can touch base with him on projects and still keep him involved,” Kemmer says.
By the time the 29th Brigade Combat Team deploys to Iraq in March, it will be armed with more than three months of training in Fort Bliss, where it has been stationed since October.
“Right now, they’re learning to live like they do in Iraq,” says Lt. Col. Howard Sugai, spokesman for the Hawai’i Army Reserves. “They spend days in the desert at their operations base. Whenever they leave the barracks, they have to wear the helmet, the body armor and carry their weapons and ammunition.
“During the daytime, they play the Muslim call to worship over the loudspeaker, wherever they are, several times a day. It’s all dealt under tactical conditions-manning security points, patrols 24 hours a day around installations, learning to get into the rhythm of living in Iraq. It’s not just about knowing how to shoot a gun.”
The families of these soldiers face their own training back home in Hawai’i, learning how to navigate the military’s masses of paper and programs.
“We talk to families about what they need to prepare for their separation, everything from wills to powers of attorney, joint bank accounts, how to cope with the separation, re-employment rights, so they know the law guarantees their jobs are protected when they return,” Sugai says. “We meet all these young couples that are engaged, want to get married, and we say, ‘Get married now, because your wife will get your medical benefits, housing pay, subsistence pay, separation pay, and that adds up.'”
Sugai estimates that more than 100 reservists rushed to marry before their deployment dates. Settling legal and financial issues back home gives soldiers some peace of mind, so they can concentrate on the mission at hand.
“It’s always gonna be tough, but all these guys are going through this together,” says Hawai’i National Guard spokesman Maj. Chuck Anthony. “For a kid who’s 18 or 19, never been away from home and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a war zone, it can be a little disconcerting. The best thing about this is you do have the buddy system-the older guys looking after the young guys and girls. That’s the best part. Everybody gets through it together.”
Off to War
The duties of Hawai’i troops in the Middle East depend on their units as well as their individual positions. About 1,000 Käne’ohe Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, for instance, took part in the intense house-to-house, block-to-block fight for Fallujah in November. More than 5,600 Schofield Barracks soldiers with the 25th Infantry Division (Light) are in Afghanistan, building and repairing schools and roads, as well as flushing out insurgents in remote mountain villages.
“It can be a challenge at times, but it’s really one of those things I wouldn’t want to trade for anything,” says Anthony, who served a three-month tour in Kirkuk, Iraq, with the U.S. Air Force last year. “You train and train, and you actually get to an environment where you put all that training to use. That goes for any soldier, airman or marine. That can be a very gratifying experience, if you come through it in one piece.”
Hawai’i’s Guard and Reserve members are infantry soldiers. “Their duty when they go to Iraq is to take out the enemy,” Sugai explains. “An infantry soldier is part of a squad of 12 people, and this group has to work as a team-an automatic rifleman, a grenade-launcher person, a communications person, a leader, and they all have their assigned special duties with their weapons.
“It’s not just kicking in doors and going through buildings and attacking enemies. It’s a very well-coordinated, rehearsed series of actions that not only serve to guarantee success, but to ensure the survival of our soldiers.”
The yearlong tour for Reserve and Guard members isn’t completely action-packed. On base, service members eat decent meals (pasta, steaks, fresh fruits and veggies), wash their uniforms at the laundry tent, maybe squeeze in a 30-second (if they’re lucky, a three-minute) shower. Many pass the time between missions playing video games, watching DVDs, or e-mailing family and friends.
“A lot of these activities are things soldiers haven’t been able to do in years past,” says Anthony. “There are recreation areas with Nautilus machines, weights. There are a lot of sports activities. Because it’s so sandy out there, you can actually make some pretty good beach volleyball courts.”
No matter how normal their daily routines, it’s never very long before troops are reminded that they are not in Hawai’i anymore. Even at installations ringed with concertina wire, with 24-hour patrols, there is always a risk of attack.
“During the three months I was in Kirkuk, we had more than 60 attacks and more than 150 rockets exploding on base,” Anthony says. “The Air Force did a terrific job keeping the base secure, even though we were constantly being probed by terrorists and insurgents.”
Free 15-minute, once-a-week calls home boost troops’ spirits. So do e-mails and care packages stuffed with everything from local grinds, like cracked seed and Spam, to more practical items, such as phone cards and deodorant. For many troops, nothing compares to a handwritten letter from home.
“It’s almost magical,” Anthony says. “You got that paper and maybe there are even some photographs in it. Maybe it’s just your imagination, maybe it even smells a little bit like home-it certainly feels a little bit like home. It’s wonderful, because it’s yours, you can touch it and feel it, tuck it under your pillow. It’s a huge morale booster.”
But when it comes to their separation from home, the soldiers may have an advantage over their Island-bound loved ones.
“I think it’s harder on the families back home than on the soldiers,” says Laurie’s husband, Spc. Michael Naumu. “When I’m up there in Iraq, I drown myself in my work. In the evening, the Hawai’i guys get together, talk about home, try to keep a sense of humor, and it helps take away some of the homesickness. But my wife has to make all the decisions for our family and raise four kids by herself. I can’t even imagine what she’s going through.”
The War Comes Home
Three women gather for an early dinner at the food court at the Mall at Pearl Harbor. Marge Pudiquet, Novie Widemann and Carrie Takenaka talk and laugh like old girlfriends, even when their conversation draws out a tear or two. Just a year ago, they barely knew each other. Now they consider themselves sisters.
For the next year, they’ll help each other get by while their loved ones-Pudiquet’s husband, Widemann’s daughter and Takenaka’s husband-serve with Hawai’i’s National Guard in Iraq. Takenaka’s 20-year-old son is already there. He will return to Hawai’i in March, the same month her husband reaches Iraq.
“I worry about my son more than my husband, because my husband is prepared,” Takenaka says. “My husband is 47, so he’s one of the elders. He thinks God put him here to go on this deployment to make sure all of them come home safe.”
All three women are actively involved in one of the National Guard’s Family Readiness Groups, which provide social and emotional support as well as information for families of troops overseas. All of Hawai’i’s military branches offer similar programs, which can become lifelines for many families.
“I take my cell phone even when I go to the bathroom, because people can call us at any time with their problems,” Pudiquet says. “It’s hard for them, because their friends and co-workers don’t know what they’re going through. It’s good to have someone who’s in the same situation.”
For many of Hawai’i’s military families, the call to duty was expected. Crystal Trujillo, for instance, knew that her husband, Carlos, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, would likely deploy.
Carlos had served overseas several times during his military career, once taking back-to-back missions for Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War. Last August, Carlos deployed from Hickam Air Force Base for a four-month stint in Southwest Asia, where he’ll support the United States’ global war on terrorism.
“My husband goes where the action is,” Crystal says. “I’m used to it. As a military family, this is a life we’ve chosen.”
It’s Crystal’s teenage daughter, Tamieka, who has had the hardest time coping with his absence. Tamieka was only 3 years old the last time her father deployed during wartime.
“She’s taken this quite hard,” Crystal says. “She’s angry, actually, because he’s supposed to be here for her senior year, she says, and he’s missing all of her last things at school. She wasn’t really focused on the fact that he’ll be back [this month].”
But military life is new for thousands of other families in Hawai’i. Like Michael Naumu, many Hawai’i reservists and Guard members never expected to be deployed in wartime. Many signed up for the extra money or the excitement it promised, thinking they’d only have to train two weeks a year and one weekend a month.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Laurie says. “I thought, ‘They’re not gonna take a reservist from Hawai’i and send him to Iraq.’ I was kind of shocked, and then mad. That’s not fair. We don’t live on the base. We don’t know anything about military life.”
Families must cope with more than just loneliness. There are practical issues, such as taking over household duties or caring for children, who often have a hard time dealing with the absence of a parent.
“It’s such an adjustment,” says Leilani Kerr, whose husband, Christopher, deployed to Iraq with the National Guard in March. They have four children, ages 11, 9, 8 and 6. “All of a sudden, you’re a single parent. You have to take over as mother and father.”
Kerr cut back on her work hours as a nurse to spend more time with her children. Her parents often baby-sit their grandchildren and shuttle them to school and back. But the juggling act doesn’t keep her children from missing their father. And worrying.
“My 11-and my 9-year-olds questioned a lot right after he left, ‘Mommy, what if Daddy dies?'” Kerr says. “I try not to ignore the issue of death or get around it. I say, ‘If Daddy dies, he died for a really good reason. Men fight and they have to die to help us keep our freedom. And if that happens, God will take care of us.'”
Widespread controversy over the war in Iraq disturbs Kerr. She tries to shut it out.
“People have their own opinions, and it has affected our family somewhat,” she says. “It kind of makes you feel like-that’s my husband over there. He’s fighting for something, and you’re telling me he’s just wasting his time, that’s he’s not doing something good.”
Many families avoid the daily news. Like Kerr, they’re not interested in the political debates over the war. Hearing about mounting casualties and violence in the Middle East only makes them worry more.
“The news portrays the bad stuff that’s going on all the time,” Takenaka says. “In actuality, our soldiers are doing a world of good. When I speak with my son, I get choked up when he tells me about the missions they’re doing.”
Family Readiness Groups also serve as a link between the units in the Middle East and their families in Hawai’i. Unit commanders contact the groups with news and updates. That way, families don’t worry unnecessarily about what’s on TV or in the newspaper.
Laurie Naumu knows firsthand how upsetting the news can be. She recalls dining at a Wahiawä restaurant with her children when a nearby television flashed news of a civilian contractor taken hostage in Iraq. Laurie’s daughter, then an eighth-grader, burst into tears, not understanding that there was no way this could be her father. The family stopped watching the news soon after.
Weekly phone calls and occasional e-mails from Michael keep their spirits up. The children take turns speaking with their father during those precious phone calls, which are usually limited to about 15 minutes. Those conversations are bittersweet for Michael and his family.
“It’s been really hard for me being away from my wife and my kids-they’re my whole life,” Michael says. “The hardest was whenever I called my wife, the first few minutes would just be listening to her crying. But everything that we did together before, she’s taken care of by herself. When people come up to me and tell me I’m a hero, I’d rather pass that on to my wife. She’s more of a hero than I am.”
After living without Michael for more than a year, the Naumu family knows life will never be the same, even after he returns home from Iraq this March.
“It has made all of us realize that Michael matters a lot to all of us, in different ways, which we never thought about a lot before he got deployed,” Laurie says. “That’s the one plus side to this. You appreciate them more, because you know what it’s like when they’re gone.”
A lesson all of Hawai’i is learning.