Home from war, citizen soldiers find life not same
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
The 2005 deployment to Iraq by Hawai'i National Guard and Reserve soldiers was a historic event — not since the Vietnam War had the 29th Brigade Combat Team deployed to a war zone.
Weekend warriors who in some cases had been part of the reserve force for 25 years found themselves pulled away from families and home, jobs and everything familiar.
Six months of training and a year in Iraq and Kuwait added up to upheaval at the least — a traumatic experience at most. With redeployment back home in December and January, it's a journey that has not ended.
One survey showed 30 percent of U.S. troops said they developed stress-related mental problems three to four months after coming home from the Iraq war, according to the Army's surgeon general.
Relationships get strained, divorces rise, and experts say that family problems get exacerbated during deployments. The soldiers received a battery of re-integration counseling upon return.
For some, active duty and a year in Iraq was a positive experience, a way to bank some tax-free income in a war zone. For others, it was literally a life-shaping trial by fire.
"Things are not the same like the way they were before we left," said Keoni I. Rosa Jr., 28, a sergeant who went to Iraq with the Reserve's 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry.
Like others, the 1995 Pearl City High graduate said he's more serious.
"Especially my family, they tell me I'm quieter now," Rosa said. "I take my life more seriously now, especially with what I'm doing in life. I want to make everything count."
There is more money in the pockets of most soldiers. Rosa re-enlisted in Iraq, picking up $15,000.
Officials expect a majority of the returned soldiers will have some kind of readjustment issues, whether financial, psychological, physical or simply getting reacquainted with a spouse, and 10 percent will seek some sort of professional counseling.
Maj. Chuck Anthony, a Hawai'i National Guard spokesman, said for about 2,500 Hawai'i citizen soldiers who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, "you are going to have almost 2,500 different types of experiences."
Here are four:
KEONI I. ROSA JR.
Rosa has been in the Army Reserve for 10 years. In 2004 he was with the 322nd Civil Affairs Brigade out of Fort Shafter. The day before he was scheduled to leave the Army, he was mobilized for war duty.
Rosa, who had previously been part of the 100th Battalion, was told he'd be rejoining the unit for its assignment to Iraq.
He was not happy about the mobilization. But he's glad he went with the 100th, full of Hawai'i soldiers.
"The hard part was just being away from your family, but the good thing was you got to meet a lot of people," Rosa said. "You make a lot of friends, and I still had that sense of being at home because of all the local boys that were all together. It really helped you get through the day, just having a sense of home."
He didn't go out on patrols that often from LSA Anaconda, but when he did, he knew he could be injured or killed.
"I always told myself, this could be the day," he said. He had no close calls.
The single soldier worked as a bill collector for an attorney before the deployment. In Iraq, he re-enlisted for six more years. The $15,000 bonus he collected was a big incentive, he said.
Being in a war zone for a year has changed him.
"To be honest with you, I'm just happy to be alive, and happy to be home. It's awesome," he said.
He thinks we should "bring the boys home" from Iraq. "They should let them (the Iraqis) take over now."
Rosa, along with his roommate in Iraq, Spc. Damien K. Place, 22, from Kane'ohe, bought into a franchise plan to bring the tabloid "Planet Philippines" to Hawai'i.
The first edition of the Filipino-targeted paper is due out next month, he said. It's a big investment and risk for Rosa.
"The way I look at it, as far as doing business, you either go big, or go home," he said. "Life is a risk. You never know until you try."
Seeing the poverty of many Iraqis affected Rosa's decision to invest in Planet Philippines.
"Just seeing the way they lived there, it was just, oh man, you want to do something," he said. "It's not like I'm poor, but I would never want my own family to experience that. I want to make sure my family is taken care of."
First Lt. Haz Anguay, 33, made patrols look easy in the farming villages that were scattered around LSA Anaconda.
The 100th Battalion soldier was assigned to Task Force Konohiki, a unit charged with helping train an Iraqi army battalion.
In late June, Anguay was in a Humvee when a roadside bomb exploded nearby, ripping a heavy steel gun turret shield off its mount and whipping it over the gunner's head.
A day later, the 1990 Campbell High graduate and customer-service representative at Circuit City was moving smoothly through a nearby village, talking on a headset radio, monitoring his soldiers, and staying alert for possible danger while shadowing an Iraqi platoon leader.
Near the end of the deployment, he had to fire on an Iraqi driver who barreled toward a checkpoint and didn't heed warnings to stop.
"It's been — I can't say easy. I've had my ups and downs," Anguay said of his return home. "I can't sleep sometimes."
Other returning soldiers also have experienced sleeplessness. Experts say it's a common post-war reaction.
Ever since 9/11, Anguay wanted to do his part and go to Iraq or Afghanistan. He feels privileged to have had a role working on the development of the Iraqi army.
During time off after the deployment, the 'Ewa Beach man visited family in the Philippines with his mom.
"I hadn't been back to the Philippines since I was born, and my mom's family there really made us feel welcome and at home, and I think that's what I really needed ever since I got back," Anguay said.
He thought about going back to Iraq or Kuwait with another unit, "but that vacation kind of really cleared my mind."
For the first few months back, he was still "revved up" from a year of adrenaline rush in Iraq.
"Even now, the excitement is still there. I still want to do something," he said.
His father was an Army captain, and Anguay has followed in his footsteps. Along with the new rank, he's getting command of D Company. He's on temporary orders with his unit, and hoping to get a civilian staff training job.
"I've got no regrets (about the Iraq deployment). I like the experience that I gained when I was there," Anguay said. "It was a great experience working with the Iraqi nationals."
When Holokahi, 19, tells people she spent a year in Iraq, she often gets an incredulous look.
"I guess it's because they never expect veterans to be 18 or 19 years old," the Wai'anae teen said.
The 2004 Kahuku High School graduate, with an M-16 and in full body armor, guarded a gravel drop-off area at LSA Anaconda for up to 12 hours a day in summertime temperatures that hit 120 degrees.
She joined the National Guard out of high school with several friends, seeking college money. They all ended up in Iraq.
"Everything happened so fast," she said, noting it feels great to be home.
"Actually, I think (the deployment) was a good life experience, to tell you the truth," the Army specialist said. "A lot of us have matured very much over this past year."
She, too, believes she's "very different."
"My outlook on life has changed completely," Holokahi said. "You become more appreciative of everything over here in civilian life."
She bought her first car, "maybe not exactly what I wanted, but it gets me from point A to point B."
A friend, Spc. Nicole Harrison, bought a new Ford F-150 pickup.
"For some of the soldiers, I've noticed they are enjoying their financial (rewards)," she said. "They go to Iraq and come back with all this money, and they are enjoying it."
She plans to pursue studies in nursing, and a security guard job.
Holokahi said if she had to do it over again, she would. And may.
Her National Guard service contract doesn't expire until 2010, and she's expecting a return to a war zone.
"There is rumor that we will be going to Afghanistan in 2008," she said.
Asked what she thought of that, she said, "I think it's another scary adventure."
A Hawai'i National Guard member since 1992, Leciejewski said he joined because it provided "just a lot of good benefits." He had been in the Marines and was part of the Minnesota National Guard.
The Iraq deployment caught many by surprise, and it was a challenge, he said.
"We just basically had to deal with that same color tan every day — tan uniforms, tan sand, tan vehicles and the same food," the 43-year-old said.
But there were financial rewards. As a captain, Leciejewski made $9,000 a month tax-free. He ordered a $50,000 Dodge truck while still in the country.
"I wanted something to show for my year in Iraq," he said.
He's heading to a captain's career course on the Mainland in July. He said he could have invested in real estate, "but when I go, the truck can go."
He saw a roadside bomb explode about 150 yards away. Like others, he said he appreciates more what he has here.
"The saying is, 'you don't know what you've got until it's gone,' but you really don't know what you've got until you're gone," he said.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.