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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005


Reporting as Hawai'i troops train

By Anne Harpham
Advertiser Senior Editor

Some 3,600 soldiers of the 29th Separate Infantry Brigade — about 2,500 of them from Hawai'i — soon will be on their way to Kuwait, and eventually, Iraq.

These citizen soldiers — the largest combat deployment for Hawai'i National Guard and Reserve members since the Vietnam War — had been at Fort Bliss, Texas, before spending two weeks recently at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

Advertiser staff writer William Cole and photographer Richard Ambo traveled to Fort Polk this month to report on our citizen soldiers and their combat certification. It's part of The Advertiser's continuing commitment to report on and about soldiers from Hawai'i or stationed in Hawai'i deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Cole and Ambo, it wasn't the first time they had been shoulder to shoulder with Hawai'i troops involved in the war in Iraq. Last year, both were embedded with Schofield Barracks soldiers for three months in Iraq and Afghanistan. They went on missions with the soldiers, and as Cole wrote in this column last summer, "experienced missile and rocket attacks, traveled to the Iranian border, and visited the reputed tomb of the Prophet Daniel, protected behind the towering walls of a fortress in Kirkuk several thousand years old."

In Afghanistan, they skim-med rugged mountaintops in helicopters and rubbed elbows with shaggy-haired Special Forces at 9,000 feet.

"All the while," he wrote, "we lived, ate, humped packs, slept in the dirt, swore and looked out for trouble with the best group of soldiers I'd ever want to trust my life to in a war zone."

Those Schofield soldiers were Regular Army troops.

This month, Cole and Ambo were shoulder to shoulder with citizens who were transforming themselves into soldiers 24-7.

Cole and Ambo returned Jan. 14 from their four-day trip to Fort Polk.

"The 105,000 acres of piney woods in west central Louisiana, impressive pyrotechnics and $10 million to $11 million spent for each several-week combat brigade rotation through the Joint Readiness Training Center make for a high level of realism," said Cole.

But, he said, in other ways, it wasn't at all like Iraq. Cole notes there aren't many pines in the Baghdad and Balad areas of Iraq where the Hawai'i soldiers are going. And, he said, the Joint Readiness Training Center didn't have nearly enough rubble — often used to camouflage deadly roadside bombs.

"Iraq is one of the most rubble-strewn countries I've ever visited," Cole said. "Piles of bricks, gravel, car parts and just plain trash are omnipresent in urban areas.

"There was a burned-out car or two along the pine-lined roads as we traveled through the JRTC war gaming area, but it was just too litter-free."

Still, he said, it seemed to be good training for the soldiers.

"The 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry based out of Wahiawa had to hold mock memorial services for seven soldiers who were 'killed' in roadside bomb attacks — the greatest threat Hawai'i soldiers are likely to regularly face in Iraq," said Cole.

The Hawai'i soldiers appreciated the visit and media coverage, Cole said. Twenty-eight Hawai'i employers whose employees were in training also flew to Louisiana to see some of the final training at the same time that Cole, Ambo and other media were at Fort Polk.

Senior editor Anne Harpham is The Advertiser's reader representative. Reach her at aharpham@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8033.