Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, June 17, 2005

8-month tour of duty in Afghanistan finally over for 200 Marines, sailors

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

KANE'OHE — Two-year-old Elijah Salarzon cried every day after his father left for Afghanistan last November. Last night, Daddy returned the favor.

Sgt. Dennis Gilbert is greeted by his 2-year-old twins, son Dennis Jr., and daughter Amber. "I missed these guys growing up," he said. "That was the worst part."

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Sgt. Theodore Salarzon was one of about 200 Marines and sailors with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment based at Kane'ohe who returned to Hawai'i after an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan. Another 800 members of "America's Battalion" will be returning to the Islands today, Sunday and Monday.

The Marines left Afghanistan on Tuesday, beginning a long journey home that saw them set down in Turkey, Ireland, Maine and San Francisco before the final leg to Hawai'i. A gathering of family, friends and fellow Marines let out a loud cheer as the chartered ATA Airlines aircraft touched down at the base at 6:30 last night.

"Coming back to Hawai'i, I never thought that it would feel so good. It's unexplainable," Sgt. Salarzon said. "I'm in an excited stage and it's hard to be emotional and excited at the same time. But it will set in."

While on deployment, Salarzon said his thoughts were always of his family.

"Every day, I thought about my family, will I be able to see my family again," he said.

Last night, his wish was granted as he fell into the arms of his wife, Mary Ann, and son Elijah.

Mary Ann Salarzon said it was difficult at first to adjust to her husband being gone. She said it was particularly tough because he was gone during the holiday season.

"It's just me and (Elijah) here and no family, so Christmas was the hardest," she said. "In the beginning he cried a lot for him. He just wants to have Daddy back to play with."

Sgt. Dennis Gilbert was greeted by his wife, Marieta, and their 2-year-old twins, Amber and Dennis Jr. While he was gone, the Gilberts bought a home in Mililani that Sgt. Gilbert would see for the first time last night.

Gilbert, 27, spent several minutes soon after he landed hugging and kissing his two children.

"I missed these guys growing up. That was the worst part," Gilbert said.

Staff Sgt. Gatai Patu said his return last night was a "glorious occasion." The 35-year-old Farrington High School graduate and Wai'anae resident was greeted by his mother; wife, Gilda; and sons Uelese, 3, and Nafoa, 1.

Patu said he enjoyed his time in Afghanistan and said the country reminded him of Hawai'i. He said he and his men came under some insurgent fire, but for the most part were treated well by the Afghan people.

"The people of Afghanistan are just like the people of Hawai'i. They're very friendly, they're very generous. They invited you into their homes," Patu said.

Patu is a religious man and said Afghanistan "opened my eyes to another world."

"It reminded me of the Bible stories with goat herders, the mud houses," Patu said.

The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment Marines did suffer two casualties, however, when Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven, 21, of Richmond, Va., and Cpl. Richard Schoener, 22, were killed in a May 8 ambush.

Their platoons were involved in a firefight with insurgents who were holed up in a cave. Kirven and Schoener were the first into the cave and were killed by small-arms fire.

"The battalion lost two Marines, which is very bad because they were doing it to help these people," Dennis Gilbert said. "But we were doing the right thing in that country. A lot of people didn't have anything out there."

The 1,000 Marines that are returning include members of the 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment; Combat Service Support Group-3; and Combat Assault Company. They replaced the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and were replaced by the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment from Kane'ohe.

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8025.