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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 12, 2005

Army restricts use of shakas in Iraq

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Spc. Lexamar Lagundi, with the 2-299th Infantry, flashed a shaka after waving a truck through his checkpoint at Camp Victory. The gesture has since been banned at guard stations by an officer who apparently felt it was a poor substitute for a snappy salute.

Photos by Richard Ambo | The Honolulu Advertiser

Sgt. Charles Pinaula of Malojloj, Guam, and Iraqi farm kids greeted an Advertiser photographer with shakas during a mission outside LSA Anaconda. Island soldiers have been told that the shaka, while OK among themselves, is no way to salute their superiors.

There may be the "Hawaiian word of the day" at Camp Victory in Iraq, but there isn't complete aloha for the shaka favored by Hawai'i National Guard soldiers.

The thumb-and-pinkie salute, a ubiquitous symbol of pride, heritage and greeting in Hawai'i, was banned at Camp Victory guard stations after a National Guard soldier mistakenly flashed a shaka to a senior officer instead of a salute.

The officer — soldiers say it was a general — took umbrage, and gave the shaka the thumbs down.

The shaka ban, one of the first times Hawai'i culture has publicly bumped into regular-Army protocol in Iraq, is seen as humbug by local soldiers.

"Yeah, the story has gotten around. Kinda ridiculous," said one Hawai'i soldier who didn't want to be named because he could face repercussions. "The general is totally in the wrong by banning the shaka, when he should have smoked the soldier instead. A coupla hundred pushups would have been better than banning the shaka."

Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone, a public-affairs officer with Task Force Baghdad, said he was not sure who gave the order.

"I could do some digging and try to find out, but quite frankly, it's irrelevant," Whetstone said by e-mail. "Whether it involves a lieutenant or a general, we all must render proper military courtesy."

That means a proper salute — and not one followed by a shaka, something that is routine on the flight line at Hickam Air Force Base as aircraft are about to take off.

The shaka ban at entry control points and checkpoints flies in the face of the popular "Hawaiian word of the day" at Al Faw palace in Camp Victory, the headquarters for the four-star general in charge of Multi-National Force, Iraq, and the three-star general in charge of Multi-National Corps, Iraq.

After arriving at the base near Baghdad International Airport about six months ago, the Hawai'i soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry who guard Al Faw started writing a Hawaiian word each day on a slate for passers-by to learn.

The effort became a big hit and brought some aloha and smiles to the faces of many of the U.S. military people who cross a causeway to get to the palace.

Some of the soldiers were under the impression the shaka had been banned outright.

"It's interesting to know that this entire base knows our battalion. I guess we've made a pretty good impression all around. It kind of (bothers me), because they refuse to let us show any 'Hawai'i Pride' on this base," said a Hawai'i soldier on a weblog.

As for the "unauthorized hand signal," "that's how we wave to each other in Hawai'i, and what about the thousands of other troops here who use a million other hand signals, profane and unprofane, including the million variations of hand-waving used by non-Hawai'i soldiers, and how come they're not being restricted or disciplined?

"We don't really care anyway and still give (the) shaka to each other — I'm willing to get yelled at while still maintaining our Hawai'i culture and pride, regardless of orders. I guess some people ... have nothing better to do with their time except nitpick other soldiers," the soldier said.

Whetstone said soldiers from the 2nd of the 299th are not prohibited from rendering the shaka to one another, but "must maintain military bearing and discipline when addressing superiors, whether they be noncommissioned or commissioned officers."

Lt. Col. Kenneth Hara, who commands the 2-299th "Koa" battalion, took "corrective action" and issued a written order directing soldiers at their duty sites to salute all officers passing through internal checkpoints, Whetstone said.

Hara could not be reached by e-mail. Guard spokesman Maj. Chuck Anthony yesterday said a copy of the written order was not available, and referred questions to Brig. Gen. Joe Chaves, who commands Hawai'i's 29th Brigade Combat Team at Logistical Support Area Anaconda north of Baghdad.

"The leadership here has full confidence in Gen. Chaves' ability to resolve any differences that there might be with the Army there," Anthony said.

Anthony agreed the greeting is ingrained in Hawai'i, even in military culture.

"If I'm a soldier and I'm out in the field and I come upon some soldiers from another (Hawai'i) company, or I'm linking up with them, of course they're going to give each other the shaka," he said. "That's normal."

Hawai'i and other Pacific islander soldiers with the 29th Brigade haven't had any high-profile culture clashes with the regular Army.

If anything, the soldiers have a reputation as hard workers who bring a positive attitude to their jobs. And there remains room for cultural expression. On a July patrol outside LSA Anaconda, Sgt. Ionatana Ala, 37, a UPS driver who lives in Mililani, switched effortlessly between U.S. military-speak on the radio and speaking Samoan with three other soldiers in his Humvee.

The origin of the shaka, which means "hang loose," "howzit," or "right on," is unclear, but is generally attributed to fisherman, tug-of-war champion and hukilau organizer Hamana Kalili of La'ie.

Kalili, who lost the middle three fingers of his hand — possibly in a Kahuku Sugar Mill accident — would lead services at the Mormon church, raise his hand in the air and say, "Right on!"

In the 1930s and '40s, Kalili worked on the sugar train, and from that vantage point, the three-fingers down sign, with pinkie and thumb out, also spread.

"There's a lot of good feeling about Hawai'i, and you can see football players using it, you can see it on TV from movie stars to politicians," said Robbie Alm, who 10 years ago with other Hawai'i residents helped start a "Live Aloha" campaign.

A half-million of the bumper stickers are plastered around the state and world — including Iraq. Former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi used the shaka as his political trademark. Former President George H.W. Bush got into the aloha spirit and used the shaka on a visit to Hawai'i in 1990.

"C'mon guys, it's good-hearted, it's whimsical and yet it means a lot," Alm said after being told of the restriction in Iraq. "The main thing I hope is they can find a way to appreciate the value of the shaka sign. It's just a universal greeting that certainly conveys no disrespect."