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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 18, 2005

Guard duty keeps friends close

The four Kahuku High School grads, class of 2004, have been friends since the seventh grade. These days, when they get together, it sometimes is in a shelter in Iraq when bombs are falling.

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Spc. Nicole Harrison, 19, left; Pfc. Dallin Auna, 19, who said he doesn't want his face shown because he's part of a military intelligence team; and Pfc. Francinette Holokahi, 18, have been friends since the seventh grade and are still together in Iraq.

Richard Ambo | The Honolulu Advertiser


LSA ANACONDA, Iraq — The four Kahuku High School grads, class of 2004, have been friends since the seventh grade.

These days, when they get together, it sometimes is in a shelter in Iraq when bombs are falling.

Some high schoolers go off to college. Some get jobs. Many do so with uncertainty.

The four Kahuku friends, no different, joined the Hawai'i Army National Guard and unexpectedly found themselves swept off to war.

Pfc. Dallin Auna was an Eagle Scout and a member of the marching band. Pvt. Lacey Golonka, 19, was a cheerleading captain. Spc. Nicole Harrison wanted to be a citizen-soldier, but wanted to stay home with her family while doing so. Pfc. Francinette Holokahi was part of Junior ROTC at Kahuku along with the other two girls.

The four teens joined the Guard for different reasons just before or after graduating. Naively, they did not expect to get deployed. Together in Iraq, they've matured and found something deeper inside.

Harrison, who just turned 19, and Holokahi, 18, wanted to go to college, and the Guard pays 100 percent of the tuition costs.

"We actually sat down one day and thought, 'What are we going to do after high school? And after five years?' Because we wanted to go to college, but we didn't know how to pay for it," said Harrison, who went by Segundo at Kahuku. "All of a sudden, here comes the National Guard recruiter, and there you go."

These days, Auna, 19, a rail-thin 5-foot-11 soldier who has modeled for Sassy/G magazine, mans a turret gun in a Humvee on patrol.

The Hau'ula teen is Hawaiian and got a Ho'omana'o scholarship to Brigham Young University-Hawai'i. He wants to study zoology, but he joined the Guard "to prove a point, to show that I could do something and stick with it. I thought it could help me with discipline, I guess."

Because they were still going through training into the spring, three of the teens arrived in Iraq in May.

Golonka, the former cheerleader, was expected to join her friends last week at the logistics support area after going through some final inoculations and paperwork in Colorado.

"She really wanted to do this war thing," Harrison said.

Together, they still seem so young to be fighting the nation's war in Iraq — especially with many Hawai'i Guard members in their 40s and 50s. On the door of her room, Harrison's name is spelled out in playful block letters, tilting backward and forward, accompanied by a smiley-face figure.

But there's also a worldliness about the four teens that's come with the right to wear a combat patch on their desert camouflage uniform.

"I seem to be more straightforward," said Auna, who doesn't want his face to be shown in the newspaper because he's part of a military intelligence team. "Now, I voice what I want to say. People don't walk all over me anymore."

Daily, he faces the threat of roadside bombs "outside the wire" of LSA Anaconda. Other concerns become less important.

Sgt. Deyson K. Cariaga, 20, from Kalihi, the first Hawai'i soldier killed in the yearlong deployment to Iraq, was part of the same unit, the 229th Military Intelligence Company. Cariaga was killed July 8 by a roadside bomb that hit his Humvee outside the base.

"I just saw him," Auna said. "I knew him a little bit. It was a reality check."

Holokahi, who like Harrison now lives in Wai'anae, guards the "gravel pit," a spot where Iraqi truck drivers drop off supplies. She's on guard duty six days a week from 5 a.m. until 1 p.m. in the 115-degree heat.

"You don't take your freedom for granted anymore," Auna said.

The Kahuku friends spend time together during off hours at chow, seeing movies, going to the Olympic-size swimming pool at the dusty, sprawling air base, or just hanging out.

Holokahi and Auna dance hula and with other halau members performed at a nearby base.

For her birthday on July 1, "we had a party," Harrison said. "They all showed up. Cake fight."

"Sometimes we forget we're in Iraq," said Auna, with Holokahi, adding, "when we spend time together."

"If we were out here and we weren't together, then it would be a different story, because we lean on each other," said Harrison as she sat next to Holokahi on the makeshift lanai of the old Iraqi building where she lives.

Although there are near daily mortar attacks on the base, the rounds usually fall harmlessly and there are few close calls, but there is real worry about Auna and another friend with the 229th because they spend so much time off base.

"If we were to lose one of them, I don't know how I would handle myself after that, because we're all family," said Harrison, who works in an office that deals with supplies.

Auna had to write out a "death letter" to family "in case something happens," he said.

"They tell you you should do that," Harrison added.

There were supposed to be other friends in the Guard with them, but who didn't make it.

Harrison's boyfriend got into a car accident, and another girl got pregnant.

Harrison and Holokahi signed up in January of 2004, and Auna joined the Guard last July, a month after he graduated.

A National Guard recruiter — now also at LSA Anaconda — had briefed the JROTC program that Harrison and Holokahi were in. Harrison signed up for JROTC because it kept her busy and away from her foster home, she said.

"He was a good recruiter, so everything he said (about the National Guard) pretty much was, 'OK,' " Harrison said.

The 29th Brigade Combat Team of about 3,700 soldiers was mobilized in August.

Because they were still being trained, the Kahuku friends didn't think they would go to Iraq. They were wrong, and in May joined the unit at LSA Anaconda.

In Iraq, Auna figures he makes $3.20 an hour, 24 hours a day.

"It's not bad. It's an experience," Harrison said. "The money, up here you're not really going to buy anything, so when you get back, you'll have all this money saved up."

Harrison is helping out her mom and brothers back home, and she and Holokahi have opened savings accounts to save for nice cars.

Auna said he still wants to be a zoologist and doesn't think he'll stay in the National Guard, but he, Harrison and Holokahi are proud of their Iraq service.

"We were in Colorado (for training), and I think about this every time I don't want to be here anymore," Harrison said.

A group of about 40 new Hawai'i National Guard soldiers, going through final preparation for deployment, were in their desert camouflage uniforms for the first time.

They were at a high school for a Makaha Sons concert.

"So we walked through the high school, and it was big and people stopped us and shook our hands and said, 'God bless you, Thank you.' " Harrison said.

"It just made you feel proud," Holokahi said.

"I think that night was our first step toward reality," Harrison said.