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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 4, 2006

Students meet pen pal, home from war

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i Army National Guard Sgt. Branch Young talks to Farrington High School students whom he corresponded with while he was in Iraq. Joining him was fellow soldier Sgt. Edward Delos Santos, middle rear. Writing letters, Young said, was good for his morale.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Army National Guardsmen Sgt. Branch Young, right, presents an Iraqi rug to Farrington High School teacher Marina Guardino. Guardino's class corresponded with Young while he was in Iraq.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Voice-activated booby traps along the road, Iraqi children who love soccer balls and gold plumbing in Saddam Hussein's palace in Baghdad were among the topics discussed yesterday in Maria Guardino's class at Farrington High School.

"We had one IED (improvised explosive device) go off just before we got to it," Sgt. Branch Young, Hawai'i Army National Guard member and Iraq war veteran, told several Farrington students and faculty member who joined the English as a Second Language class to hear him speak. "I guess their timing was off."

Young and Sgt. Edward Delos Santos, who joined Young in speaking to the class yesterday, were members of the 29th Brigade Combat Team, citizen soldiers who returned to their Hawai'i homes in January after a year in Iraq.

Young wasn't unknown to Guardino's students. He'd been corresponding with them for months, writing hundreds of letters and cards, answering every piece of mail they sent to him.

"After your 12-hour shift," Young told the class, "there isn't much to do."

Young said it was important for soldiers to find something to take their minds off their missions, and writing to them helped him feel connected to the world he'd left behind.

He'd started when he found a letter from one of the students, lying on a desk in his compound, Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad, one of Saddam's many palaces scattered throughout the country.

Young said he was amazed at the wealth Saddam had amassed. The palace had gold plumbing, Young said. He showed them a picture of a golden throne.

Around the palace, many Iraqis lived in poverty, he said. He'd written to them about that.

"You have young children approaching the vehicles," he wrote in October. "They are wearing old clothes, asking for food, dirt all around them. Honestly, it is terrible, and I've come to realize how good we as Americans have it."

Was there enough room in the palace for each soldier to have a bedroom? the students asked Young and Delos Santos.

It didn't work that way, the soldiers said.

Their company, assigned to providing security for another military unit stationed at the palace, was housed in a single, huge room. They partitioned off areas for themselves with plywood.

"Providing security is a really big challenge," Young wrote in the October letter, "especially when you are understrength. But we tend to manage pretty well."

Young and Delos Santos said it took a while to get accustomed to frequent mortar attacks, and having to be aware that no one from the community "outside the wire" could be completely trusted, including the Iraqi interpreters who accompanied the soldiers, wearing masks to avoid being recognized by their neighbors.

Sometimes, the soldiers said, the interpreters just stopped showing up for work, and they wondered what had become of them.

Young and Delos Santos were accompanied to the classroom by Sgt. 1st Class Palaie Gaoteote, a recruiter who handed out key chains, pencils and DVDs on life in the Army Guard.

He asked the students if any of them wanted to join the military when they finished school.

One boy, 16-year-old Leomar Aarra, raised his hand.

"What will you seniors do when you graduate?" Gaoteote asked.

Only one responded.

"Go to college," said Larry Siuta, a 17-year-old who said he wants to become an English teacher.

Reach Karen Blakeman at kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.