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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, November 28, 2004

Holidays intensify hopes, fears

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Leane Hensley received the letter more than a month ago, before the offensive on Fallujah in Iraq began.

Hensley romps with her sons, Cameron, 2, left, and Erich, 15 months, at a playground on Marine Corps Base Hawai'i in Kane'ohe. She says the holidays will be sad without her husband, but that Marine wives have a great support system.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

It was from her 23-year-old husband, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Hensley, a Marine with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment, and the last time she has heard from him.

"Do not open unless I'm dead," he had written on the outside.

"I cried," said Hensley, the mother of boys ages 2 and 15 months, "and then I put it in my Bible and walked away."

The Hawai'i unit was in the thick of fierce fighting to retake the rebel-held city. Sixteen 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment Marines have been killed in Iraq — all but one in the Fallujah area.

Hensley knows Alpha Company hasn't been relieved, meaning her husband wouldn't have had the chance to contact her, and computers were shut down for a while.

Leane Hensley displays a photo of her husband, Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Hensley, who is serving in Iraq.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

In the meantime, she watches CNN and checks online with the same mix of hope and dread experienced by other spouses.

"Just to get a glimpse of him would be nice," the 21-year-old Massachusetts woman said.

Wives like Hensley, and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, are going through that type of uncertainty during what is traditionally the most family-oriented times of the year — the holidays.

At a time when most families make every effort to get together, combat in two war zones is keeping 2,000 Marines and their families apart.

But largely — with Marines supporting Marines, families supporting families, a liberal dose of community help, and an abundance of gung-ho pride — they are able to cope.

"They (the holidays) are sad, but you have the support that you need with the wives, so it kind of takes your mind off of it a little bit," Hensley said.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Brown, stationed in Kane'ohe, hangs out at Kailua's Creekside tavern, a popular spot for many Marines. Brown says Kane'ohe-based Marines are doing "awesome work" in Iraq.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

She had planned to play host to five wives and eight children at her home on the Marine Corps base at Kane'ohe Bay for Thanksgiving. She'll have a similar gathering at Christmas.

For Hawai'i Marines, many of whom are on their first combat assignment, recent duty in Iraq and Afghanistan is the chance to write their names in the history of Marine Corps lore.

In 1991, about 7,600 Kane'ohe Marines were deployed during Operation Desert Storm, and Hawai'i Marines with Task Force Taro were the first to cross the mined Kuwait-Iraqi border.

There had not been a battalion-size presence of Hawai'i Marines in the Middle East until late August, when about 1,000 Marines with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment crossed into Iraq from Kuwait.

That has been followed by the deployment of another 1,000 Kane'ohe Bay Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment to Afghanistan this month.

Although many Hawai'i Marine families are adjusting anew to war and sometimes death, the Army's 25th Infantry Division (Light) has become agonizingly accustomed to it over the past year.

The deaths Wednesday of Cpl. Jacob R. Fleischer, 25, and Cpl. Dale E. Fracker Jr., 23, in a roadside bomb attack represent the eighth and ninth fatalities for the division in Afghanistan, and brings to 20 the number of Schofield soldiers to be killed in two wars since early this year.

Already, Hawai'i Marines have been the target of attacks — but no injuries — in southeast Afghanistan, where the 3rd Battalion is responsible for six provinces.

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Norm Cooling said from Forward Operating Base Salerno that "morale right now is sky high, and I don't mean that lightly."

"These guys are anxious. They've been anxious over the last several months to stop training and start conducting the mission," he said. "You don't hear many complaints right now. They're just happy to be a part of the global war on terrorism."

Petty Officer Michael Subee, 25, a 1997 McKinley High graduate who is senior line corpsman for Headquarters and Service Company, was used to alternating Thanksgiving and Christmas with his and his wife Brandi's families in Waimanalo and Niu Valley. The couple has a 6-year-old son, Aramis.

"It's definitely rough (missing the holidays), but my wife's a really strong woman and she has support from both sides of the family, being that we're both from Hawai'i," he said.

Second Lt. Paul Makani Christensen, 24, a supply officer with Headquarters and Service Company who grew up in Hilo, Hawai'i, said that some years he would make an imu with his family for Thanksgiving and eat turkey, lau lau and fish.

This Thanksgiving was spent at the FOB Salerno chow hall.

"It's an experience out here," he said. "I'd like to let our families know we're doing well. Marines are sticking together with sailors (from 3/3) and making the best of what we do have."

For the 1st Battalion Marines in Iraq, the holidays come packaged with the loss of 16 lives in a month's time. Seven Hawai'i Marines were killed in a suicide car bombing near Fallujah on Oct. 30.

Hensley worried that "anytime you open the door it will be two guys in uniform telling you your husband isn't there anymore."

"You open the door very slowly," she said.

The worry and loss hits families hard, and sometimes when they least expect it.

Hensley said "you could be at the store and want to cry. You see some of the Marines there, and just seeing them, you wish your husband is here. There's plenty of nights when you cry yourself to sleep, but you just have to get up the next day and continue on."

For one past deployment by her husband to Okinawa over the holidays, Hensley was with family in Massachusetts. On another, he made it home for Christmas.

"This is going to be the first time without anyone here with me for the holidays besides the kids," she said.

Other wives will be thinking of her, though, and she'll be doing the same. If she goes to the store, she checks to see if others with children who can't get out of the house need anything.

"You're constantly checking up to see if they need anything — especially the pregnant wives. We have a lot of pregnant wives," Hensley said.

The greater Hawai'i community also has tried to do its part.

Redemption Academy in Kailua donated 60 turkeys to the families of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment Marines for Thanksgiving.

"A lot of people want to help support any way they can, so it's either support the families here or sending things directly to Iraq," said Michele Godfrey, whose husband Jerry is a first lieutenant with the 1st Battalion in Iraq. "I think it's because of the holidays. A lot of families have children, and (the public) wants to be our extended family, help us out. We're just really appreciative."

At the Creekside tavern in Kailua, owner Shawne Garliepp brought in two turkeys, two hams and all the trimmings for her loyal Marine Corps family.

About 70 percent of her business comes from Marines, and Corps memorabilia — including a photo of a tank in the Middle East with a Creekside T-shirt displayed on one of its treads — adorns the walls.

"We've got guys who've left Hawai'i for seven to 10 years and now they're back and here (at Creekside) again," Garliepp said.

Over the years she has gotten to know many Marines, but not understand them entirely. One gunnery sergeant in Iraq has been able to call the tavern most Sundays.

"He'll call and say, 'Hi, who do you know in Iraq?' And I'll say, 'A lot of people. Who's this?' " Garliepp said with a laugh.

The gunnery sergeant served in Iraq, came back and deployed again with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment.

"He came back and could hardly wait to go over there again," Garliepp said. "I don't understand it."

But her Marine Corps customers do.

"Guaranteed, those Marines out there, they'd love to be with their families during the holiday season, but they wouldn't give up the opportunity to be where they are at now, being part of the change, helping Iraq change, helping Afghanistan change," said Gunnery Sgt. David Pangelinan, who is with Headquarters Battalion at the Marine Corps base.

Pangelinan, 33, who was born in Hawai'i and lived in Kunia until he was 5, was in Iraq twice: in 1991 and again last year, both times with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton in California.

The second trip took him through Baghdad and Tikrit, and he has a picture of himself sitting on Saddam Hussein's bed in one of his palaces on the Tigris River.

Pangelinan's old unit is back in Iraq "and I feel like I should be standing there by their side," he said. "You just have that pride."

Hensley's husband has the same kind of pride.

"He's one of those guys born to be a Marine. He loves it all," she said. "All he does is read about (the Corps) and try to get as much information as possible."

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Brown, 27, an active-duty staff member of the 4th Force Reconnaissance Company, a reserve unit at Kane'ohe Bay, said the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment Marines have made a name for themselves in Fallujah.

"They are doing awesome work out there," Brown said. "They're the new guys in town, and the first thing someone's going to do is try to test them. They're holding their ground and are not going to let the insurgents win."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.