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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Incentives given to re-enlist, 'Stay Hawai'i'

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

With combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, and some major reorganization of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) ahead, soldiers are being offered new incentives to hang around Hawai'i.

Unit of Action

The Army's 33 maneuver brigades are being recast as 43 to 48 "Units of Action" with greater self-contained capabilities such as reconnaissance and artillery that are now division-level assets. The Army calls it the most significant restructuring in the past 50 years. In Hawai'i, the 3rd Brigade at Schofield Barracks will convert to a Unit of Action in fiscal 2006.

Stryker Brigade

The 2nd Brigade at Schofield Barracks is scheduled to convert to a Stryker brigade based around eight-wheeled, 20-ton armored vehicles. A total of 291 Strykers will be based on O'ahu as part of the $1.5 billion brigade. A series of trails are planned on O'ahu and the Big Island to provide access to training ranges. The unit is expected to be operational by 2007.

Two major projects will be under way: transformation of the 2nd Brigade to a fast-response Stryker unit with eight-wheeled armored vehicles, and the conversion of the 3rd Brigade to a Unit of Action.

Re-enlistment NCOs are in the hunt for soldiers for those units, and there are some changes and inducements being peddled to remain in the Army and Stay Hawai'i, the name of a new campaign.

The list includes cold, hard cash — up to $15,000 tax-free for re-upping in a combat zone; more time spent in one place, providing greater stability for families; and higher housing allowances.

Surfing, golf and warm tropical breezes are always a plus.

"They are being offered lots of incentives and options to stay Army or stay Hawai'i," said Sgt. Maj. Lisa Jones, the 25th Division retention sergeant major.

Among those inducements is not having to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan for several years. Soldiers also can stay in Hawai'i longer with re-enlistment and assignment to the Stryker brigade or Unit of Action.

"We all come into Hawai'i basically staying three years, but if we affiliate with one of those units, we'll stay another three years," Jones said.

Sgt. Frederick LaRossa, 36, has been in Hawai'i for nine months, and re-enlisted here to stay six more years with the Stryker brigade.

"Stability for me is a big thing. I don't have to change schools for (my son)," said LaRossa, a truck driver who has a 5-year-old and another child on the way. He also picked up a $10,000 bonus.

"I invested that and paid some bills. Thank you, Uncle Sam," LaRossa said on Friday. Bonuses of up to $40,000 are being offered for high-demand specialties such as military intelligence.

The Stryker brigade and Unit of Action will be in place in the fall, employing "life-cycle manning," in which the same set of soldiers is assigned to a unit for three years.

"You are there for three years and you're not touched," said Command Sgt. Maj. James Dickie, with Schofield's 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan.

The 3,500-soldier Stryker brigade will be based around 291 armored vehicles that weigh 20 tons and have eight tires instead of tank treads. The first vehicles are expected to arrive in 2006.

Dickie said soldiers "can stay in Hawai'i or whatever state that has the Unit of Action or Stryker and be there for long periods of time. What that does is give soldiers predictability."

A spouse can better establish a career in the community. Combat deployments are expected to be shorter, and unit cohesion is expected to improve.

A separate option now offered is to extend in Hawai'i for one year.

Sgt. Anthony Rivera, 22, who's with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery, re-enlisted for six years and also will be part of the Stryker brigade. In 2003 he fought from Kuwait to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in a Bradley fighting vehicle.

"The (Stryker) vehicle itself, I enjoy being in a larger vehicle, the maintenance, and just the cohesion of the team you get when you have a vehicle," said Rivera, who's from Washington, D.C.

Allowances for off-base housing significantly increased as of Jan. 1. For married junior enlisted members, the increase was 29 percent, from $1,315 a month to $1,698.

Free roundtrip airline tickets for the family to the home of record are being offered for signing up for one of the two life-cycle units.

However, working against re-enlistments are the long combat deployments, which, for some units, have become repeat combat deployments. Some soldiers say they're just getting out.

Cpl. Daniel Ihnen, 24, with the 25th Military Police Company at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, recently re-enlisted with 31 other soldiers with Vice President Dick Cheney officiating.

The Ripley, N.Y., man's six-year re-enlistment will keep him in Hawai'i until early 2006, he'll go to school in Washington D.C., for a year to train as a Greek linguist, and then he'll be based in Athens, Greece, for three years.

He could have rotated out of Hawai'i after returning from Afghanistan — a re-deployment now expected in March — but chose to stay here.

"For me, a big factor was my experience in Hawai'i — my unit's been great to me," Ihnen said by phone from Afghanistan. "The (re-enlistment) bonuses the Army has been giving out, those have been helping a lot of people."

Ihnen said increasingly frequent combat deployments have deterred some soldiers from re-enlisting, his wife among them.

She's part of a sister unit in Afghanistan, the 58th Military Police Company, and a rumor going around is that the 58th will head to Iraq after Afghanistan.

"My wife doesn't want to do that, so she'll probably be getting out," Ihnen said.

Before the 25th deployed about 5,200 soldiers to Iraq and 5,800 soldiers to Afghanistan almost a year ago, it had the reputation of rarely deploying, and some soldiers who wanted more action tried to avoid Hawai'i.

Now, the need to re-tool the two combat brigades — thereby reducing the chance for combat deployment — is being used as a re-enlistment plus.

"That's one of our retention tools — the fact that, 'Hey, re-enlist to stay in Hawai'i and the 25th while we undergo transformation," division Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Ashe said in October. "You're not going to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for a couple of years as we re-set the division and transform it."

Sgt. 1st Class Albert Nelson, 35, with the 58th Military Police Company in Afghanistan, recently re-enlisted for an indefinite period and is due to transfer out of Hawai'i in July.

The 12-year soldier said the long combat deployments — which the Army wants to reduce with its Units of Action — weigh on soldiers considering re-enlisting.

"Right now, it's weighing pretty heavily. Myself, I'm married and I have two kids, two sons, and a year is a long time to be away from your family," Nelson said. "So for a lot of older career personnel like myself, it's a big toll."

Nelson said he likes the Army, the stability it offers, likes being around soldiers, "and right now, they're giving pretty good bonuses for re-enlisting in a combat zone."

"If I had to deploy, in all honesty, the 25th would be the way I'd want to deploy, because they take care of soldiers," he said. In terms of armored Humvees and needed equipment, "the 25th has been right on point with that."

Dickie said within the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 435 soldiers re-enlisted in eight months — 236 of them to stay in Hawai'i with the Unit of Action or Stryker brigade.

Jones said the 25th Division was second out of 10 Army divisions in fiscal 2004 for soldier retention rate.

"We have some challenges we are facing. However, re-enlistment is healthy," Jones said. "We're re-enlisting plenty of soldiers in deployed theaters under dangerous situations, and we're doing very well."

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