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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 26, 2005

War hitting Guard, Reserve hard

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Spc. Nick Tuiolosega remembers that the explosion that night on a deserted road outside Balad, Iraq, was not particularly loud — like a cherry bomb — but the damage to his Humvee was severe.

Spc. Nick Tuiolosega, with wife Meita at his side, is recovering at Fisher House, next to Tripler Army Medical Center, after surgery for injuries sustained when his Humvee hit a land mine in Iraq.

Photos By Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Tuiolosega, a soldier with the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, was driving, and bore the brunt of the land mine's blast. He started to do what he had been taught: Open the door, turn off the engine.

"Next thing I heard was 'Wait, don't get out, look for secondary (roadside bombs),' " Tuiolosega said. "So I just stayed in the car and noticed that my legs were burning because of the oil."

The Humvee had been demolished. The land mine "took out the whole left (side of the) engine, the axle, the floorboard, the rod for the steering wheel. There was nothing."

Yesterday, the 29-year-old reservist from American Samoa recounted the roadside blast at Fisher House next to Tripler Army Medical Center, where he is recovering from surgery for a broken left leg, a skin graft extending from his ankle to his knee, a right leg sprain and hand injury.

As of late last week, the 29th Brigade Combat Team had seen 34 soldiers wounded in action, officials said. Tuiolosega's injuries came on April 21.

About 3,700 citizen-soldiers with the Hawai'i National Guard brigade, including more than 2,200 from Hawai'i, have been serving in Iraq and Kuwait since early March.

Tuiolosega is the only 100th-442nd soldier to be medevaced home, although the famed battalion has received 22 Purple Hearts. Of the 34 soldiers wounded, 25 have been returned to duty, a 29th Brigade official said.

As of last week, another Hawai'i-based unit with the brigade — the 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry, at Camp Victory in Baghdad — had not suffered any injuries.

"There are IEDs (improvised explosive devices) daily all around us," said 2-299th commander Lt. Col. Kenneth Hara. "The battalion has been very lucky and (we) have not hit an IED."

Other units have not been so lucky.

The death rate in Iraq this month among members of the National Guard and Reserve is the highest since January, and one of the highest of the entire war, Pentagon figures show.

As of yesterday, the Pentagon had identified 19 Guard and Reserve members among the month's 54 dead in Iraq. The casualties amounted to 35 percent Reserve troops and 65 percent regular troops, while Reserve troops in Iraq make up about 40 percent of the forces.

In April, 11 members of the Guard and Reserve died in Iraq; in March there were 13, and February's toll was 16. The surge has raised concern that insurgents may be setting their sights anew on American forces after targeting Iraqis working with Americans.

But the rise may be part of a regular cycle of violence, U.S. military officials said, and the experience of soldiers like Tuiolosega may bear that out.

The married father of three children ages 1, 2, and 3 had been driving the same route, past wheat fields about a mile outside Logistical Support Area Anaconda, every day. The convoy of four Humvees was setting up an observation post on April 21 to look for suspicious activity along the route.

"This is the first time that we (Charlie Company) got hit by an IED," said Tuiolosega, who works as a port-of-administration officer at the airport in Pago Pago.

Spc. Nick Tuiolosega and his wife, Meita, display the Purple Heart he received after being wounded in a land-mine explosion April 21 in Iraq. The soldier from American Samoa is a reservist with the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, and has three young children.
"The word we got before we got to Anaconda (was) this route we're taking is IED alley," he said. "But when we got there, there was hardly anything going on."

The Iraqi people in the area of LSA Anaconda are generally friendly, Tuiolosega said. At first that wasn't the case because some island soldiers were mistaken for Egyptians or other Middle Easterners who the Iraqis thought were wearing U.S. uniforms.

The 100th Battalion's Bravo Company has seen more IEDs and small-arms fire off base in part because of the area it covers and because it's a larger geographic area, Tuiolosega said.

The 5-foot-10, 235-pound soldier, who has lost weight since he was injured and is getting around on crutches and two removable leg casts, said the brunt of the blast from the land mine came from below.

The Humvee he was in had a bulletproof glass windshield and armored side-door kits with bulletproof glass. "It saved my life," Tuiolosega said.

At LSA Anaconda, as at Camp Victory, many of the Guard and Reserve soldiers do not go off the base. Others volunteer for the duty, seeking the excitement of life "outside the wire."

Lt. Col. Hara, who has more than 600 soldiers under his command, has patrols that go out every day and night. The 2-299th also defends the base from attacks, operates entry control points and has some civil military operations.

The battalion is working on a $500,000 project to provide electricity to a village, and future projects include overseeing the replacement of water pipelines and refurbishment of a primary school.

The most prominent attacks, Hara said, have been small-arms fire directed at soldiers in guard towers, and entry point attacks with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The 100th's Tuiolosega, who recently received his Purple Heart from Brig. Gen. John Y.F. Ma, commander of the 9th Regional Readiness Command of the Pacific Army Reserve, and state adjutant Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, expects to be at Fisher House for some time for rehabilitation.

His left leg is a patchwork of scabs, stitches and skin graft. He is not expected to return to Iraq for this deployment.

Tuiolosega said he'll "just miss the guys." His wife, Meita, said she's just glad he's closer to home. He expects to be sitting behind a desk when he returns to duty. "Be a pencil pusher," Spc. Tuiolosega said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.