Ambush victim from Big Island was a soldier's soldier
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai'i For a professional soldier, the highest form of praise comes from comrades who size you up and give you the nod: They are ready to follow you into combat because they trust you.
West Hawaii Today via Associated Press
Wesley Batalona was "a soldier you could count on," said a former Army Ranger who served with Batalona in combat.
West Hawaii Today via Associated Press
And he walked the walk by going to war in Panama and Kuwait, said Gary Knutson, another retired Ranger and veteran of three tours in Vietnam who now lives in North Carolina.
Batalona served with Knutson in the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, a top-notch airborne unit that parachuted into Panama in 1989 to seize Omar Torrijos International Airport and Tocumen Military Airfield to prepare for the arrival of the 82nd Airborne Division.
"It's a unit that's made up of very elite, extraordinary men themselves, and Wesley Batalona was an extraordinary leader among those extraordinary men," Knutson said in a telephone interview.
"They'd say, 'Yeah, I'd follow that man into combat anytime,' because you knew that Wesley was going to be there for you, no matter how tough a situation got, no matter how close the bullets got. If you followed him into combat, Wesley would be there for you," Knutson said. "He was a soldier you could always count on."
Batalona, 48, was working for a private company called Blackwater Security Consulting when he died in Iraq. The ambush killed three other Americans, and members of a crowd that gathered after the attack beat the bodies and hung two of the burned corpses from a bridge.
Blackwater, a North Carolina company that hires former military personnel to provide security training and guard services, had a contract with the Pentagon to provide security for convoys that delivered food in the Fallujah area.
Norman Allen, who served with Batalona in the 1st Ranger Battalion from 1974 to 1979, described him as a "quiet professional" who was calm under pressure.
"That's what gets me about this whole thing," Allen said in a telephone interview from North Carolina. "We don't know how it went down, but I know this: There was a couple of really, really experienced guys in that vehicle when it got ambushed, and, damn, it had to be very fast for these guys not to see it coming.
"It had to be very quick for them not to get out. You always leave an out."
Batalona joined the Rangers shortly after graduating from Honoka'a High School in 1974, at a time when the Ranger units were being revived for the first time since World War II, Allen said.
The U.S. Army wanted a tough, fast strike force to serve as the "point of the sword" to parachute in to seize key airfields and installations and hold them until the main invasion forces arrived.
The soldiering was and still is brutal. Many of the Vietnam vets who returned from the war and tried to join the Rangers didn't make it. Rangers train constantly and practice risky airborne assaults.
"Wes stayed, and to understand what that took, physically and mentally to do that for so many years, I'll tell you, you've got to be harder than woodpecker lips," Allen said.
"The standards were tough, they were rigid, there was not much room for error. You didn't make a mistake and survive it careerwise."
Knutson and Batalona were sergeants together in the Rangers from 1980 to 1983. Knutson said Batalona was no thrill-seeker. He was driven by a sense of professionalism, and was tapped to train younger soldiers because of his expertise, he said. He was also a close friend.
"When things got the roughest and you were tired and hot and sweaty and miserable, he always would look at you and make some kind of crack that would lighten the whole moment," Knutson said.
Batalona retired from the Army in 1994, but Allen said he wasn't surprised to hear the Big Island native was back in the thick of things in Iraq, working for a security contractor alongside professional military men.
The security crews are well-paid, but "it's not just the money," Allen said.
"You have this tremendous amount of experience," he said. "You want to make an impact ... you end up working with people that you worked with for maybe 10 or 15 or 20 years, and that makes the risk acceptable, because you know the background these people have, where they come from."
Knutson's wife, Lynn, said her family became close with the Batalonas when the two men served together in the Ranger battalion. The Knutsons and their children would gather with Batalona and his wife, June, and the Batalonas' daughter, Krystal, in military housing to eat and socialize, she said.
The Rangers' families were close-knit because of the stress. The men often were abruptly summoned to duty at 3 a.m., and would not return for three weeks. "We lived with that tension and that fear," she said.
"To know that he lost his life over something so senseless has us so angry," she said. "June has lost a wonderful husband and Krystal has lost a wonderful father, and Wesley was trying to do what Wesley was. He was trying to help make it a little better for those kids over there, and instead he lost his life."
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org or (808) 935-3916.