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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 20, 2005

Two years of war: How much more?

After two years in Iraq, the question still hangs like thick smoke: When will the 150,000 American troops there leave?

"Our troops will come home when Iraqis are capable of defending themselves," President Bush said Wednesday.

Iraqi forces appear to be expanding and becoming more effective, but opinions differ on when they will be strong enough to allow U.S. troops to leave.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops also depends on how long it takes to do two other things in Iraq:

  • Establish a new government
  • Resuscitate the economy

We examine where Iraq stands on these three major issues.

 •  Growth hinges on nation's security
 •  Young military still relies on U.S. help
 •  Two years of war

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

The question put to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Fallujah, Iraq, was unexpected, but any Marine who has served in Hawai'i knew what it meant.

Elizabeth and Susan House, sister and mother of Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John House, grieve at a memorial service at the State Capitol. The service was for House and 26 Hawai'i Marines who died in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash in Iraq, and a corporal who was killed outside Fallujah on Feb. 2.

Advertiser library photo • March 7, 2005

"Sir, my question is, now that the 3rd Marines have been allowed to show their abilities to the world, are we going to be entering into combat rotations in the near future?" a Marine asked in December.

It was more of a historical question. Ask Hawai'i Marines, and they'll tell you the 3rd Marine Regiment at Kane'ohe Bay had a reputation of not deploying for combat.

Until September. And Fallujah.

For Hawai'i troops, service in Iraq has been a point of pride and a source of loss.

The 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment was one of six battalions to slog its way through some of the fiercest fighting of the two-year-old Iraq war, making a new name for itself retaking the rebel-held city — and getting gut-punched with terrible losses.

Eight 1/3 Marines were killed in a suicide car-bomb attack on Oct. 30; 11 more Marines were killed in Iraq — most of them in Fallujah; and 26 Hawai'i Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in the crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter in a sandstorm on Jan. 26.

For some of the same reasons — chief among them that Hawai'i forces are on standby for a North Korea or Taiwan contingency — the 25th Infantry Division (Light) was viewed by many soldiers as the "go nowhere" division.

But for the past year, 5,200 Schofield Barracks soldiers served and fought in Iraq, and 5,800 more did the same in Afghanistan.

Twenty-six Schofield Barracks soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 270 have been wounded.

Marine wounded in the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, to which the Hawai'i Marines who served in Iraq belong, topped 250.

Lance Cpl. Joshua D. Fincham, 20, who took part in house-to-house fighting in Fallujah and was shot in the hip, was one of the Marines who added a new combat chapter to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment's history and pride.

"Once we did get our share (of combat), we were going to make sure they knew who we were. Now they do," the Virginia Beach, Va., man said. "Everyone knows who 1/3 is."

Navy got in early

Two years into the war in Iraq, Hawai'i has a record of early naval involvement — the Pearl Harbor submarine USS Cheyenne fired one of the first Tomahawk missiles of Operation Iraqi Freedom — followed largely by nearly a year off the hook, and then a full-on deployment drive.

In the first days of the Iraq war, four Pearl Harbor submarines, the Cheyenne, Columbia, Key West and Louisville, along with destroyers Paul Hamilton and O'Kane, fired cruise missiles. The O'Kane alone launched 19 Tomahawks.

About 250 Marines with the 1st Radio Battalion at Kane'ohe Bay and another 40 with the 4th Force Reconnaissance Company left Feb. 9, 2003, for eventual Kuwait and Iraq duty, and more than 200 soldiers with Charlie Company, 193rd Aviation of the Hawai'i National Guard, were mobilized on Jan. 7, 2004 for Iraq.

But it wouldn't be until Jan. 13, 2004 — 10 months after the war began — when the first wave of an eventual 5,200 Schofield Barracks soldiers would leave Hawai'i for Iraq.

That would be followed by 5,800 soldiers deploying to Afghanistan several months later. About 900 Hawai'i Marines with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment entered Iraq in September, followed by a similar number with the 3rd Battalion arriving in Afghanistan in November.

In December, Hawai'i had nearly 14,000 soldiers and Marines at war.

The Hawai'i National Guard's 29th Brigade Combat Team, meanwhile, recently began duty in the Balad and Baghdad areas of Iraq in its first combat deployment since the Vietnam War.

Another infantry battalion at Kane'ohe Bay, the 2nd Battalion, is expected to relieve the 3rd Battalion in May.

Mike Pavelec, an assistant professor of history in the diplomacy and military studies program at Hawai'i Pacific University, says Hawai'i's sizable troop contributions came later as a result of early assumptions that proved wrong.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz early on said "he didn't think after Saddam Hussein was removed, it would take a massive amount of U.S. force to sustain the peace process," Pavelec said. "Now, of course, we're seeing it's taking more troops to handle the peace."

John Pike, a military expert with GlobalSecurity.org, said: "They hadn't planned on the war lasting this long. Basically, every deployable unit has been called on."

A new norm

Deployments to hot spots around the world and continued rotations through Iraq and Afghanistan may be the norm for years to come.

A brigade of about 3,500 25th Division soldiers is transforming into a rapid-response unit that will speed to the battlefield in eight-wheeled armored vehicles.

"Our Army is changing dramatically right before our very eyes," said 25th commander Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson, who just returned from Afghanistan. "I don't think there's any division that can be considered a reserve force of any sort, for any war whatsoever. We're all on the front lines of the global war on terrorism, and I think the soldiers of the 25th Division feel that more powerfully, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, than ever before."

Pike said another reason Hawai'i troops may have been kept out of the Iraq war early on was because U.S. military planners were looking "very seriously" at a pre-emptive strike against North Korea's nuclear weapons facilities in spring 2003, and the possibility "that the North Koreans might push back."

"I think South Korea told them if we did it, South Koreans would escort us to the nearest beach," Pike said.

With the deployment of Marines from Okinawa and Hawai'i soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon in February 2004 deployed bombers to Guam as a deterrent to North Korea. The mix has included B-1, B-52 and most recently, B-2 bombers.

Gen. William Begert, former commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces based at Hickam Air Force Base, previously noted that when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. Pacific Command brought in extra air power to reduce the risk of conflict in Korea.

Pavelec says there likely will be a chance for Hawai'i troops to add to their combat history.

"I'm not sure specifically about the troops from Hawai'i, but the current consensus is that peacekeeping and democracy-building in Iraq and Afghanistan is going to take a long time, so they can probably — and that's a very qualified probably — be expected to go back, because it's not likely to be over anytime soon."

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

Correction: The above photo was taken at a State Capitol ceremony on March 7 for Hawai'i Marines killed in a January helicopter crash in Iraq and a corporal killed outside Fallujah on Feb. 2. The location of the memorial ceremony was wrong in the caption in a previous version of this story.