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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 19, 2006

'They were part of our 'ohana'

 •  Salute to the Fallen
 •  PDF: Letter from Marine Cpl. Kyle J. Grimes
Hawai'i Medal of Honor ceremony photo gallery

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Senate President Robert Bunda presented Kaleb Witkowski, 5, and his mother, Tina Witkowski, with the Hawai'i Medal of Honor. The medal was awarded to Kaleb's father, Army Spc. Philip Witkowski, during a ceremony yesterday at the state Capitol honoring those with Hawai'i ties who have died while serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. Witkowski died in Afghanistan while serving with the 7th Field Artillery, 25th Infantry Division, which is based at Schofield Barracks.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A Hickam Air Force Base honor guard provided a memorial salute. The state honored 120 service members who died between March 2003 and late February. It was the first time that the Hawai'i Medal of Honor was awarded.

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Army Sgt. Nakoa Hoe accepted the Hawai'i Medal of Honor awarded to his brother, Army 1st Lt. Nainoa Hoe, from state Senate President Robert Bunda. Nainoa Hoe, a 1995 Kamehameha Schools graduate, was felled by a sniper's bullet in Mosul, Iraq, on Jan. 22. Also presenting the medals yesterday were Gov. Linda Lingle, Speaker of the House Calvin Say, and Hawai'i state Adjutant Robert Lee.

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In an unprecedented tribute yesterday, Hawai'i opened its arms and hearts to men and women with local ties who died while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

"They were part of our 'ohana," Gov. Linda Lingle said of 120 service members who died between March 2003 and late February, "and I want to let you know how deeply we appreciate what they did for us as Americans so our way of life could continue."

With the hope that those who have died will never be forgotten, Lingle said, "I hope their children would one day appreciate the sacrifices their fathers made."

The governor could have been speaking to toddler Monica Williams, whose mother was 6 1/2 months pregnant with her when her father, Army Sgt. Eugene Williams, was killed on March 29, 2003.

Unlike her 6-year-old sister, Mya, who can recall playing with her father at Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Ga., there are no memories for Monica.

"Hopefully, she'll remember this day," said Monica's mother, Brandy Williams of Waipahu. "We miss him terribly. Remembrances are all we really have left. So, I'm grateful I'm from a state where they don't forget because I know it's important to me."

Sgt. Williams, a New York native who was based at Schofield, was among the recipients of the Hawai'i Medal of Honor, awarded for the first time yesterday at the state Capitol.

A gathering of about 200, including family and friends of 48 of the honorees, attended the ceremony, which included a Hawaiian chant, and the singing of the national anthem and "Hawai'i Pono'i," in addition to the presentation of the medals. Lawmakers created the Hawai'i Medal of Honor last year.

There were tears and smiles, but most importantly for those who lost loved ones, there was a feeling that their sons, daughters and husbands are not forgotten. At a private gathering on the third floor of the Capitol after the ceremony, it was evident many had formed a bond a new 'ohana circle with Hawai'i at the center.

"It's very meaningful to know that he's not been forgotten," said Julius Woods, a retired Navy man from Clarksville, Tenn., of the framed medal awarded to his son, Navy Petty Officer Julian Woods, 22, who served with the 3rd Marine Division detachment from Marine Corps Base Hawai'i at Kane'ohe Bay. Woods was killed Nov. 10, 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq.

"He died a hero and I know he made a difference," Woods said.

TEARS FLOW

Laverne Woods, who is currently serving in Iraq, said what Hawai'i did for her stepson will be remembered by those fighting the war. "It's very important to go out there knowing someone is thinking about you," she said.

After the medal ceremony, Rosa De Peralta covered her face and cried. She had come to Hawai'i from San Diego with five family members to accept the medal for her son, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, who was killed Nov. 15, 2004 in Iraq.

"Very meaningful, very emotional for me," Peralta said before the ceremony.

Her son, 15-year-old Ricardo, will remember his brother as "a cheerful Marine, doing his job."

Marybeth LeVan also came from the Mainland with five family members. She received the medal for her son, Cpl. Kyle Grimes, a 21-year-old who wanted to go to college and work for the FBI when he got out of the Marines.

Weeks before he was to leave Iraq, on Jan. 26, 2005, the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter he was flying in crashed in a sandstorm in western Iraq. Onboard were 25 fellow Marines and a sailor from Kane'ohe Bay. All were killed.

Grimes had a sense of humor, and no matter what the situation in Iraq, no matter how dangerous or stressful, he could crack everybody up, relatives said. Being in combat in Fallujah underscored for him the importance of family, and he wondered in a letter home if he would someday have his own.

Grimes wrote: "The night before the attack on Fallujah, I spent part of the night watching the bombs ... light up the skyline of the city. ... After that, I laid on my rack and wondered if this would be my last night. Then, thinking how much I had to do in life yet like fall in love, get married, children, etc. ... it hit me like a ton of bricks. My eyes became teary and I wiped them off. ... I wanted to be ... unemotional on the night before the biggest event of my life. But I guess I couldn't help it. I have never known how precious life is until now."

LeVan said it's healing to be with the families of the fallen Marines, and a way to keep their sons alive in memories.

"I miss a lot of things about Kyle his personality is so funny," said LeVan, of Baton Rouge, La. "He and I were so close."

SOLDIER LOVED HAWAI'I

For 79-year-old Cecelia Moncure of Long Beach, Calif., it was an honor to accept the medal on behalf of her grandson, Army Pfc. Stephen Castellano of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from Schofield who was killed Jan. 28.

"I think it's just tremendous Hawai'i did something like this for him," Moncure said.

Castellano's uncle, Richard Moncure, added: "We received beautiful letters from Hawai'i. I just wish other states would do this. Steve loved Hawai'i and loved doing what he did. All we have are memories of him and we will not forget this."

Melisa Jack, widow of Army Spc. Derence Jack, and her friend from childhood, Tiara Evangelista-Lieto, whose husband, Army Sgt. Wilgene Lieto, was also killed in the war, said the trip from Saipan was worthwhile.

"My husband deserves every honor he gets and it's an honor for me to be here," Jack said.

On Oct. 31, Jack, 29, and Evangelista-Lieto, 26, lost their husbands, who were assigned to Hawai'i's 29th Brigade Combat Team. The women, who have three young children between them, said it has been tough going. "How we live our lives by going on will be the celebration of their lives," Jack said.

Tina Witkowski and her late husband, Army Spc. Philip Witkowski, who was killed May 1, 2004, spent only two years at Schofield so she was surprised Hawai'i would honor him. It's a gesture she will never forget.

"I honestly cannot believe they would go through all the trouble to make him feel special," Witkowski said. "This comes at a time when it has been a while (since her husband's death) so it makes you feel like they haven't forgotten."

Witkowski's son, Kaleb, 5, has memories of his father but his brother Kyle, 2, does not.

"Every time Kaleb sees a soldier, his eyes light up so you know he's proud," said Witkowski, of Puyallup, Wash. "He's asked to keep the medal in his room."

BOTH LOST AN ONLY CHILD

Both Richard Tsue of Honolulu and Tita Derrow from Chesapeake, Va. who returned to Hawai'i for the first time since 1989 lost their only child.

Marine Sgt. Daniel Tsue, 27, a Kahuku High graduate who was an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, was killed Nov. 1, 2 1/2 months after arriving in Iraq. "In the last e-mail I got from him," his father recalled yesterday, "he told me he was going to Iraq ahead of time. He volunteered to take someone else's place and he said it's better he goes than some married guy.

"The medal is nothing to me. I came to pick it up for him. You're never going to forget, never want to forget, any of them."

Derrow's son, Army Chief Warrant Officer Ian Manuel, 23, was born at Tripler Medical Center and lived in Hawai'i at Iroquois Point for nine years. He was a medevac pilot who was transporting five soldiers for a checkup when his Black Hawk was downed by a missile on Jan. 8, 2004.

"My son loved his years in Hawai'i and I have good memories of him here," Derrow said. "I'm honored by what the state is doing for him. As a medevac pilot, he saved other lives."

Solomon Suh, the father of Pearl Harbor-based Navy Quartermaster 2nd Class (SEAL) James Suh, recently moved from Hawai'i to Northern California. His 28-year-old son, who was killed last June 28 while on a rescue mission in Afghanistan, had purchased a home in Hawai'i and had planned to settle here, relatives said yesterday.

"This is a wonderful tribute to him," said Patty Schafer of Honolulu, whose brother is married to Suh's sister, Claudia. "Solomon was very proud of his only son, who was also his best friend."

Kristi Florita-Gouveia, sister-in-law of Army Spc. Kyle Fernandez, 26, of Pearl City, wiped away tears and said: "This means a lot to all of us but it doesn't bring him back. We still miss him. He was like an older brother to me and I know he'd say to us, 'Keep going, be strong.' "

A MARINE'S THOUGHTS BEFORE BATTLE

Here are excerpts from a letter written on Dec. 23, 2004, by Cpl. Kyle Grimes to his mother, Marybeth LeVan. Yesterday, LeVan received the Hawai'i Medal of Honor for her son, who died in Iraq on Jan. 26, 2005. In the letter, the 21-year-old Kane'ohe Bay Marine recounts his thoughts on the eve of the November 2004 U.S. air and ground assault on Fallujah, which was a major stronghold of insurgents, including al-Qaida in Iraq. Fallujah is now one of the most intensely guarded cities in the nation. The full letter can be seen at honoluluadvertiser.com.

Staff writer William Cole contributed to this report.

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.


Correction: Hawai'i Medal of Honor winners were given what is known as a memorial salute, or three-rifle volley, in a ceremony at the state Capitol. Information in a previous version of this story.