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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

Stryker decision caps an eventful year for Hawai'i

By B.J. Reyes
Associated Press

The Pentagon's year-end announcement that one of the Army's new, fast-moving Stryker brigades would be based in Hawai'i came as welcome news to state officials who have long lobbied for the unit.

The announcement capped a year that began with Hawai'i-based soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen all bracing for the possibility of war in Iraq, which came in March.

Since then, the Islands have seen a steady stream of ships and troops return or pass through on their way back to home ports elsewhere, and now 8,400 troops are preparing for duty next year in postwar Iraq or Afghanistan.

At least four soldiers with ties to Hawai'i were killed in the war.

Despite state officials' enthusiasm for a Hawai'i Stryker brigade, whether it becomes an economic boon, as some predict, or a boondoggle for the state remains to be seen.

The Pentagon envisions a brigade of about 3,500 soldiers based within the 25th Infantry Division (Light) at Schofield Barracks.

The Army had completed an environmental assessment for conversion of existing facilities to accommodate the quick-strike vehicles and additional troops before the Pentagon's approval last week changed some of the criteria on which that assessment was based.

The Pentagon said approval for the brigade was based on setting it up with enhanced aviation, fire support, network and sensor capabilities. It remains unclear whether the Army will have to revise or redo its environmental assessment based on those enhancements.

Regardless, the Pentagon expects the brigade to be operational by 2006 — a plan that doesn't sit well with environmental attorney David Henkin.

"We have serious concerns about the transformation decisions that are being made," said Henkin, an attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "They appear to be preordained decisions, rather than decisions that are going to be made based on the analysis of the full environmental impact statement as required by law."

The Stryker brigade is key to the Pentagon's goal of remaking the Army into a more versatile force that can move quickly onto distant battlefields. The units, built around the eight-wheeled Stryker vehicle, are far quicker than a traditional armored unit centered on the tank.

It's not the only change that could be in store for Island military installations in the coming years. The Navy continues to explore the possibility of basing an aircraft carrier battle group at Pearl Harbor, and the Marine Corps expects to receive five V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft in the next decade.

The most immediate change for Hawai'i forces will be the massive deployments to the Middle East.

In addition to 8,000 soldiers from Schofield Barracks who are spending the holidays preparing to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, nearly 400 Army reservists are being deployed to Iraq.

The horrors of war already have hit home for families of at least four soldiers with ties to Hawai'i.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Bolor, 37, who was born in Wailuku and raised in Lahaina, died Nov. 15 when two Black Hawk helicopters collided in Iraq.

Others killed in duty included Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Cameron B. Sarno, a 43-year-old Wahiawa native killed Sept. 1 while changing a flat tire on a transport truck in Kuwait City, Kuwait, and Chief Warrant Officer Sharon T. Swartworth, 43, the lead adviser to the Army's Judge Advocate General who had recently moved her family to Mililani when she was killed Nov. 7 in the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter near Tikrit, Iraq.

Army Sgt. Eugene Williams, 24, of Highland, N.Y., was killed March 29 when a car exploded at a checkpoint. His wife, Brandy, lives in Waipahu.

As more soldiers move out, Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has said more sea and air forces are likely to come into Hawai'i, as evidenced by Friday's arrival of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chafee and its 340 crew to Pearl Harbor.

Aside from personnel issues, military land concerns also made some of the biggest headlines in 2003.

The Army in January resumed live-fire training in Makua Valley for the first time since 1998, only to have training interrupted by a planned controlled burn to reduce brush that raged out of control and scorched half of the 4,190-acre valley.

After demanding that the Army take better care of the land or face a lawsuit, preservation groups later reached an agreement to allow live-fire training at Makua without the use of artillery shells and mortars to prepare the Schofield soldiers.

As the Army was returning to Makua, the Navy was leaving Kaho'olawe after 62 years.

Control of the 45-square-mile island just off Maui reverted back to the state on Nov. 11, with a formal ceremony the next day at 'Iolani Palace. The return marked the end of a 10-year cleanup of ammunition, scrap metal and unexploded bombs that began with a Congressional appropriation in 1993.

The island now will be set aside for cultural, education and archaeological activities, with no commercial development allowed.