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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 27, 2003

Hawai'i's troops 'in midst of battle'

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

On the first night of fighting in Iraq, an incoming missile landed less than a football field's distance from Camp Commando in Kuwait, where Hawai'i Marines were camped.

 •  Agency aids part-time soldiers at workplace
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 •  Facts about the war

The Coast Guard cutter Walnut, based out of Honolulu, recently was in the northern Arabian Gulf, checking to see if vessels were smuggling oil out of the country.

On board the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, Lt. Tyler "Tattoo" Nekomoto, 27, an F/A-18 pilot from Kaua'i, described seeing anti-aircraft fire as he approached the suburbs of Baghdad on a bombing run.

Bits and pieces of information on hometown forces are coming out of the Middle East, but even the military has had trouble keeping up with its own as ground troops move rapidly in different directions.

There are three Pearl Harbor-based ships in the region and at least several submarines, but no entire units on the ground.

Schofield Barracks, for example, has had a hard time establishing e-mail contact with some of its soldiers deep inside Iraq. One commander said that of the soldiers deployed from his unit, only three have e-mail capability.

"It just shows how our soldiers are in the midst of battle," said 25th Infantry Division (Light) spokeswoman Capt. Stacy Bathrick.

About 18 Hawai'i soldiers with chemical, armor and combat engineering specialities are with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), elements of which were 95 miles outside Baghdad. Another 80 Schofield soldiers left for the Middle East several days ago.

E-mail has been patchy with bandwidth needed for operational needs.

Kristina Bell-Taylor, whose husband, Steven Taylor, is a Marine staff sergeant with the 4th Force Reconnaissance Co. out of Kane'ohe Bay, recently heard from him again following the start of the war.

About 40 Marines from the special operations unit, which specializes in reconnaissance and other operations deep behind enemy lines, were based at Camp Commando in northern Kuwait.

"They were actually in very good spirits," Bell-Taylor said. "He said, 'Don't worry, they over-dramatize everything on the news.' But I think he was telling me that so I wouldn't worry."

Meanwhile, the 250 Marines of 1st Radio Battalion, which provides communications support for Corps intelligence organizations and conducts electronic warfare, were augmented by more than 40 others from the 2nd Radio Battalion from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

1st Radio Battalion commander Lt. Col. Mark Aycock said his unit is supporting forces in both Kuwait and Iraq. Half of his Marines deployed in direct support of the ground attack.

"The Marines serving in the country of Kuwait provide just as much of a service as those that have crossed the berm and are now in Iraq," Aycock said.

Chaplain Navy Lt. Jeffery Han put together a program to try to cope with the combat fatigue that comes from daily stress and lack of sleep and communication with family and friends.

"The Marines and sailors have done an amazing job dealing with these stresses, always remaining focused on their work and continuing on supporting their overall mission," Han said.

Recently, the Radio Battalion received notes from children of the Marine Corps Base Kane'ohe Chapel.

"Dear Marine," one read. "I thank you for fighting for our freedom. I am sorry you had to leave your family. I hope you are safe. You mean a lot to me."

On board the Constellation in the Persian Gulf, Hornet pilot Nekomoto took part in strikes in Iraq on Friday. About 160 miles south of Baghdad, Nekomoto began seeing aircraft fire "here and there."

As he approached the suburbs of Baghdad, the entire sky lit up. "There was this cloud layer," he said, "and just below you could see these flashes — boom, boom, boom — things going off all over the place. The clouds were all lit up. I've never seen anything like that."

The same day, 30 U.S. Navy and coalition ships and submarines took part in Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on Iraq, including the Pearl Harbor-based destroyers Paul Hamilton and O'Kane, and the attack submarines Louisville, Key West and Cheyenne. The submarine Columbia also fired Tomahawks in recent days.

In the northern Arabian Gulf, the Coast Guard cutter Walnut had inspected 10 vessels for illegal oil and found all to be in compliance.

Lt. Rick Wester, the executive officer on board the 225-foot ship, said the climate is cold in the Arabian Gulf, oil byproduct fires on oil rigs light up the night sky, and hazy clouds obscure visibility past one mile.

"There are huge sand storms at night that blow dirty brown sand all over the ship," Wester said. "As far as ships (in the area), most are either large oil tankers and cargo ships, or small fishing dhows from the Gulf states. You see a lot of coalition warships operating in the area as well. Security is really tight, so you're not as worried as some might think."

Wester said Walnut has been especially valuable in the intercept mission because it's smaller and more maneuverable than most naval vessels. "It's our unique capabilities that the Navy sought in having us come out," he said.

"The sacrifices that troops make out here is huge. You would never know it unless you experience it first hand," Wester added. "I hope the people back home respect and believe in their soldiers and sailors out here fighting for our liberties."

USA Today contributed to this report. Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.