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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 24, 2005

An oasis away from war

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Spc. Kakalia Goeas, 20, of Hilo, goes for a swim at the large pool available to Hawai'i citizen-soldiers at Logistical Support Area Anaconda in Iraq. It's not exactly the Pacific Ocean, he says, but it still reminds him of home because "at least it's water, yeah?"

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

Sgt. Elisa Repolio, of 'Ewa Beach, finds that free time at the pool "helps take away the stress, that's for sure."

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

A diver takes off from one of the platforms along the Olympic-size swimming pool that opened in April for Iraq's scorching summer.
Pool regulations, aside from ensuring safety and sanitation, prohibit two-piece swimsuits for women and Speedo briefs for men.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

LSA ANACONDA, Iraq — There's no running in the pool area — unless, maybe, there's a mortar attack.

Weapons are prohibited, and Pool Rule No. 4 states that "no person who has received the smallpox shot and still healing may enter the pool."

This is clearly not your average swimming pool.

Then again, anyone finding their way to this Shangri-la — past the gravel, dust and oppressive heat of this big air base; past the drone of helicopters and fighters, the razor wire and a tense standoff with the outside world; and past the 15-foot concrete blast walls that surround the pool — already knew that.

Inside is an oasis of momentary calm surrounding a blue-bottomed, crystal-clear Olympic-sized swimming pool.

On this 117-degree Sunday, techno funk is pumping out of two big speakers, men and women in bathing suits are catching rays on white-plastic reclining chairs and a water volleyball game is going on.

The incongruity of it all as mortars sometimes fall is not something the Hawai'i National Guard and Reserve soldiers dwell on too much. They're just glad the pool is there.

"It helps take away the stress, that's for sure. It helps us forget we're in a combat zone," said Sgt. Elisa Repolio, 29, as she hung on to the side of the pool.

The 'Ewa Beach woman, a business development analyst for Better Brands, is with Charlie Company, a medical unit of the 29th Support Battalion.

The pool opened for the summer in April and an increasing number of Hawai'i's citizen-soldiers — used to being surrounded by ocean but now surrounded by sand — are finding respite there on their yearlong deployment to Iraq.

Repolio was taking her first dip. Spc. Kakalia Goeas, 20, from Hilo, who's with the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, has been going every other day.

The mortarman, part of a counterfire team that fires back at the insurgents who lob mortars at the base, works a 24-hour shift and then gets some time off.

"This is what reminds me most of home. It's small, but at least it's water, yeah?" Goeas said. "Once you start getting into it, a lot of time I forget I'm even here (in Iraq), and that's why I want to come here, to get my mind off IEDs (improvised explosive devices)."

At 15 square miles, Logistical Support Area Anaconda, 50 miles north of Baghdad, is one of the biggest U.S. bases in Iraq.

It's home to 22,000 troops, up from 17,000 in May 2004, and is being built up as an "enduring" facility that could be used long-term as the United States consolidates bases elsewhere.

Lots of concrete is being poured for new landing zones for the Army, and a procession of helicopters, C-130 propeller aircraft, C-17 jet aircraft, F-16 fighters and Predator drones take off from two runways.

As the war has progressed, the military also has addressed "quality of life" issues.

The 800,000-gallon pool, with a 10-meter dive platform, is a leftover from the base's days as an Iraqi aviation academy. It was unused for 10 years and took a lot of repairs, including being filled and drained five times, before it opened in August 2003.

The troops also have an indoor pool, a first-run movie theater that seats more than 500, a big white air-conditioned tent-like structure with a 40-foot ceiling and lots of exercise equipment, and Burger King, Subway and Green Beans Coffee shops.

But the pool is where service members really can shed wartime worries, along with the desert camouflage uniforms they wear most often.

No two-piece swimsuits are allowed for women; no Speedos for men.

Spc. Losivale Fa'aiu, 21, from Kalihi, and Spc. Michelle Tucay, 22, from Wai'anae, both with "Charlie Med," the medical unit, head to the pool usually once a week on their day off.

Fa'aiu, a college student, celebrated her 21st birthday in May on guard tower duty, M-16 at the ready, in the sweltering heat.

Tucay, a self-described full-time "mommy" to a 16-month-old back home, figured that body armor and other gear add 44 pounds to her 130-pound frame.

On this day, Fa'aiu was sporting red-painted toenails and a blue-red-and-brown patterned swimsuit.

"It (the pool) really helps, because it's hot and you just dive in and it's better," Fa'aiu said.

"It just boosts your morale to be able to come and relax," added Tucay.

The fact that about 90 percent of the couple hundred people at the pool this day are guys doesn't bother Fa'aiu.

The lopsided mix is representative of the 29th Brigade Combat Team as a whole; officials said only 167 of the approximately 3,700 Guard and Reserve soldiers are female. Many are part of the 29th Support Battalion at LSA Anaconda.

"I don't pay attention to the guys, and it's not a good thing or a bad thing (that there are so many)," Fa'aiu said.

"Unless they're cute," she added quickly with a laugh.

"I don't think my husband would like that too much," said Tucay, who joined the Guard for college money and wants to be an elementary school teacher. "It's just nice to come out and swim and relax and take your mind off work."

Sgt. Kaleikau Lindsey, 52, from Honolulu, who was sitting in the shade on a reclining chair, listening to a Daryl Hall and John Oates CD, said that since April, only once has he had to leave the pool because the air raid siren warned of an attack.

The Honolulu International Airport security worker usually heads to the pool for a few hours on Sunday, his day off.

The air raid warnings become a fact of daily life at Anaconda, and the few rounds that are fired usually land harmlessly somewhere on or near the base.

But there have been more than a half dozen fatalities, and Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kolfage, a 2000 Kaimuki High School graduate, had his hand blown off and both of his legs were amputated after a mortar round exploded near him on Sept. 11, 2004.

The swimming pool, with its parade of people, blasting music and cool water, helps keep service members' minds off such worrisome thoughts, even for just a few hours.

Goeas, who was wearing dark Billabong board shorts with a big pink hibiscus down each side, said pool workers sometimes play local music, and he and friends get a hibachi going off the pool deck.

"Mostly the water, that's what I come for," said Goeas, who works in Kona at Alamo-National Car Rental.

"All my life, you are born there (in Hawai'i), and there's always water. Here, there's nothing."

"Plus, you've got the wahines, and you get to see people do stupid stuff," he said, laughing as a service member tried to do a back flip off a diving platform but ended up in a side flop.