Operation Islander

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

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.

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.

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.”

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.”