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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Iraq in Honolulu: Paradise Short Lived

A vacation in Honolulu, in the beautiful state of Hawaii, is intended to transport stressed people into a snippet of tropical paradise. Hawaii's gentle breezes and emerald colored oceans invite respite and renewal. Consequently, I was surprised by how much I quickly learned about the American War in Iraq, while in Hawaii.

My husband Richard and I took advantage of an early spring get-away opportunity, using the last of our Delta Airlines frequent flyer miles, to luckily escape the worst stormy weather Maine has seen in over a decade.

We booked a trip to visit San Francisco and then Honolulu.

This trip was our third visit to the Aloha state. Our first Hawaiian family vacation was taken when returning home after living 3 years in the Philippines on Luzon Island. At that time, in the late 1970's, Honolulu was like a decompression chamber, allowing us to orient ourselves to living in the United States again. On our 1st trip, we stayed at the newly opened, 5 star military resort, at Fort DeRussey, called the Hale Koa Hotel, on Waikiki Beach.

As military installations go, the Hale Koa is a nirvana experience where rank, rate, regimental structure and uniforms are cast aside. Everyone is equally invited to enjoy a first class vacation at the Hale Koa; a benefit offered to military personnel both active duty and retired. No tax dollars are used to support the Hale Koa because the buildings and tropical gardens are landscaped on federal land at Fort DeRussy, a piece of real estate the investment developers passed on when Waikiki
Beach became a tourist Mecca.

We returned to the Hale Koa on our 3rd recent vacation because we fit the prototype as a retired military family.

Oftentimes, it's difficult to return to past experiences and regain the same ambiance as with the first charmed encounter. This was not at all the case with our Hale Koa vacation. We were even more charmed this second time around because the Hale Koa expanded in size, beauty and scope of services.

Nevertheless, my delusion of visiting a paradise was abruptly checked when I met a young man in the elevator who was only 18 hours in time removed from Baghdad in Iraq. It was a quiet 5 AM encounter. The young solider, dressed in t-shirt and shorts, serendipitously joined me in a "jet-lag" jaunt to get a cup of Hawaii's famous Kona coffee, going out while most hotel residents, including my husband, were still sound asleep.

"Where are you from?," I asked him. He said, "I just came from Baghdad!"

He and his wife met up at the Hale Koa for a 2 week "R&R" vacation. His war time vacation is a repeat of the thousands of liaisons of the Korean and Viet Nam wars whereby the military flies active duty personnel directly from the battle fields to Hawaii for specific reunion purposes. It's a fabulous morale booster and one of the principal reasons why the Hale Koa maintains a supremely romantic get-away reputation.

Actually, the young solider on the elevator turned out to be one of dozens of other Iraq military personnel we subsequently met while at the Hale Koa. In fact, at the ritual Luau performance, one young solider proposed marriage to his fiancé on an outdoor stage with about 700 people in the audience applauding while wiping tears from our eyes.

I never felt closer to the American War in Iraq then while vacationing at the Hale Koa. We made it our responsibility to support and love these families during their liaisons. Moreover, the specter of their personal anguish at fighting in war was evident during every second of their time spent quietly walking around the grounds with loved ones. Like watching the same movie over and over with different characters, each family's brief 2 weeks in paradise played out like it could be their last chance at happiness. Their short time together was, truly, more precious than
gold.

Unfortunately, the young man in the elevator told me he didn't trust the way the American media was covering the war effort in Baghdad. He said, "I don't think the media likes us".

Not so, I responded. "We pray for you in Baghdad. Everyone is praying for you. In fact, the media is looking out for your well fare," I said. "The Portland Newspapers, in Portland Maine, even has a journalist in Baghdad. He's Bill Nemitz," I told him. In fact, Bill takes time to report on troop welfare, I told him.

I don't suspect he believed me.

Anyway, by that time, we both had our Kona coffees in hand and were walking back into the tropical night breezes to our respective rooms.

When we left Honolulu, we saw another young soldier tearfully saying good-bye to his wife and child at the airport. It was the bittersweet, yet inevitable, outcome of a 2 week R&R in paradise.

A flight attendant, on our return flight from Honolulu to Atlanta, George, asked passengers to pay tribute to the number of Iraq personnel who were on the plane. They were obviously melancholy having just left their loved ones after 2 weeks at the Hale Koa. Everyone applauded, but we obviously didn't lift their sadness.

Our second visit to the Hale Koa was two generations removed from our first one, but there were wistful similarities. No doubt, other people looked at us back in the 1970's, as though we were a Viet Name liaison (although we just happened to be in transit). Our movie played out in two generational theaters.

Back in Maine, we found our house had electric power on after being off for three days due to the spring Nor'easter. Our reality was, of course, far removed from those hotel guests from Iraq, whose "real-world" re-entry includes the dangers of facing war on a daily basis or living at home without loved ones. Certainly, we will pray for those soldiers in Iraq and their families.

Unexpectedly, we found Iraq in paradise and I'm affected by the experience.

For good or ill, whether we agree with this Iraq war or oppose it altogether, we are all in it together, paradise notwithstanding.

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