Many returning troops aren't quite home yet
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — Sgt. Teody Andrade was home from Iraq for exactly one hour and 50 minutes.
Home is Guam. From there, it was on to Hawai'i for the couple of weeks it takes to demobilize and return to civilian life after nearly a year in Iraq with the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry.
Flying from Kuwait to Bangkok, Thailand, to Guam to Hawai'i, the Army reservist got to see his home island from Andersen Air Force Base during a brief refueling stop.
"It was good to see home, but kind of disappointing I couldn't go home — just stay home," said the 31-year-old married man, who has a 2-year-old son.
About 2,200 Hawai'i National Guard and Reserve soldiers and 1,500 Mainland and Pacific-based counterparts are winding up a mobilization that began in mid-August of 2004.
For many, the last stop is Schofield Barracks and the less-than-creatively named Area X housing, a $4 million high-tech tent city where citizen-soldiers go through the bureaucracy of shedding their full-time soldiering status and returning to their civilian lives.
It's one final round of camp life with paperwork, doctor visits and briefings to endure before returning to their families and former lives.
For soldiers who live on O'ahu, it's a considerably better deal: They get to go home after the day is done.
Soldiers such as Andrade stay in one of 42 metal-framed, PVC and polyester-walled Sprung Structures that were put up on 82 grassy acres at the north end of Schofield Barracks. The rust-colored structures were built on concrete pads poured in the 1950s for 16-by-32-foot tents. An additional 18 wood-framed shelters were previously erected for training and are still used.
A group of 250 Hawai'i National Guard and Reserve soldiers, most of whom were from the Neighbor Islands as well as Guam, Saipan and American Samoa, last week were staying at Area X.
"At least we're out of Iraq," said Spc. Dwight Cruz, 24, who's from Saipan and with E Company of the 100th Battalion. "I just can't wait to get home."
Cruz wore a black metal remembrance bracelet with the names of Sgt. Wilgene T. Lieto, 28, and Spc. Derence W. Jack, 31, who were both killed in Iraq.
"They were great guys," Cruz said. "It's a great loss and just too bad they didn't come back with us."
Fellow Echo Company soldier Staff Sgt. Sevio Chargualaf, 37, who's also from Saipan, said the unit is like family.
"It was hard for us to experience that, having two of our brothers get killed in Iraq," said Chargualaf, a building inspector. "Back home, they were telling us when the two bodies came there were a lot of our family members and friends who came to meet them at the airport and were lining up on the road."
LIFE AFTER IRAQ
On the demobilization checklist for returning soldiers is a visit with a chaplain.
"They'll ask you if you have any problems with family, or you need counseling. They are there to help us out," Chargualaf said.
He and another soldier had one of the Sprung Structures to themselves. The housing is outfitted with bunk beds and sleeps 10. Showers and toilets are in separate buildings.
Officials say the new setup is an improvement over the old Army tents.
"Billeting is such a premium (at Schofield) for transient soldiers. We needed to make sure we're taking care of these guys coming back," said Lt. Col. Jay Hammer, executive officer for U.S. Army Garrison, Hawai'i.
There's a weight room, TV room, a store, Area X Beer Garden selling brew from 5 to 7:30 p.m., and shuttles into Waikiki.
"We provide everything right here, so we're not getting in cars drinking and driving. That's a bad thing," Hammer said.
Hammer said the soldiers typically go through 10 days of demobilization that includes briefings on such issues as the military healthcare program Tricare, VA benefits, counseling, military records checks, a dental visit and physical exam.
They also have a talk with a mental health expert who tries to gauge post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
"We try to give these guys a little breathing room, and just do half days," he said. But he also said officials take the demobilization process seriously because "we want to make sure when these soldiers leave this mobilization station they have been taken care of mentally, physically and administratively."
Cpl. Taitos Joseph, 21, from Salt Lake, said adjusting to the civilian world will take time. The 2003 Moanalua High graduate was attached to B Company of the 100th Battalion, which draws mostly from American Samoa.
"Every time we hear noises or a boom, our bodies still have that Iraq war zone mentality," Joseph said. "We'll think it's a (roadside bomb) or gunshot."
Joseph was able to go home every night, as was Sgt. 1st Class Colbert Halemano, 44, a Hawai'i National Guard soldier from 'Ewa Beach, who served with his son, Spc. Keoni Halemano, 22, in Iraq.
"It's good. My wife's happy," Colbert Halemano said as he and his son left a medical briefing at Schofield. "I guess for my youngest son (who's 7), he's glad to have dad and his brother home."
Hammer said Area X will be used for future training and mobilizations. Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry of the Guam National Guard being mobilized for Middle East duty soon will stay there, and 900 JROTC high schoolers will spend five days there in March.
Joseph, who was a Honolulu Community College student, is now thinking about pursuing aircraft maintenance work. Late last week, he was hanging out with about a dozen soldiers from the 100th Battalion at an enclosed shelter, not quite ready to leave those he served with in Iraq.
"I finished my stuff yesterday," Joseph said. "I can go home right now if I want to, but I want to spend a few more minutes with the boys."
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.