Thoughts of family kept troops strong

LIHU’E — Following a year fighting insurgents in Iraq, four returning Kaua’i-based solders were recognized as heroes trying to improve the lives of millions of Iraqi citi-zens during a Welcome Home tribute at Wilcox Elemen-tary School yesterday.

Hawaii Army National Guard Sgt. Bernard Remigio and Army Spc. Jon Anthony Vidinha Sr., Andy Batulayan and Felix Torres, all members of the Alpha Company, 2-299 Infantry, 290th Brigade, expressed their gratitude to nearly 900 students, the entire student body at the school.

The soldiers also saw the reception as the next step in their lives: they rejoiced at being reunited with family members and resuming their civilian lives.

Thinking of family kept them strong during tense times in war-torn Iraq, Remigio and Vidinha, a relative of An-tone Vidinha, the first mayor of Kaua’i, told The Garden Island.

“Thinking of them kept me strong,” said Vidinha, who provided security along the road to the Baghdad Interna-tional Airport, a hotbed for acts of insurgency.

Remigio said only that he was involved in security oper-ations in Iraq, and remembered “scary moments” marked by bomb scares, and that being with family members now was a “wonderful thing.”

School officials said they wished more of the Kaua’i-based soldiers could have attended the ceremony, but noted that many more need to go through “processing” before they can return to family members and other loved ones on Kaua’i.

Some of the soldiers found it difficult to keep their emotions in check, and fought back tears when Wilcox students at the ceremony sang “I’m Proud to be an American,” and “Voices that Care.”

Donovan Pegeder, a Wilcox Elementary School educational specialist, sang the lead to the song “Give a Little Love,” with an accompaniment by second-graders and third-graders.

The recognition of the soldiers was part of the Kokua Assembly to honor the soldiers, and to welcome them home.

The monthly school assemblies attempt to impress upon the students the importance of Hawaiian core values: aloha, kuleana, ‘ohana, kokua, laulima, ‘ike, ho’oponopono and lokahi.

When school officials participated in the “Adopt the Soldier” program to show support for Hawai’i-based troops in Iraq, teachers saw the Hawaiian core-value program as a way for students to show and practice those values, they said.

Vice Principal Richard Edge-worth said the program has worked, and student behavior has gotten better.

Recognition was given to third-graders who wrote letters, drew pictures, and sent care packages to Hawai’i soldiers as second-graders.

Remigio said the soldiers from Hawai’i were thankful for the packages that contained goods that reminded them of home, and therefore kept them emotionally up during their tour in Iraq.

Christine Vidinha said the safe return of her husband to Hawai’i after being away from Kaua’i for 18 months was a blessing.

“I am grateful and honored to have a man who is the type of husband and father he is to my kids,” she said, surrounded by Cee Jay Vidinha, her 1-year-old son, Jon Anthony, her 4-year-old son, and Jahlia, her daughter who is a third-grade student at Wilcox Elementary School. “I am just glad it is over.”

Christine Vidinha said she is sympathetic to members of Hawai’i families who lost soldiers in Iraq, but is “grateful he (her husband) is one of the lucky ones who made it home safely.

“I can go to sleep knowing my family is all home and safe,” she said.

Jon Anthony Vidinha Sr. said his greatest pleasure will be getting to know his family again.

Vidinha said thinking of his family kept him emotionally strong when he manned security checkpoints along a road used by military and Iraqi civilians that led to the Baghdad International Airport.

Vidinha said the area was a hot spot for insurgency, and that he had to stay focused all the time to make sure he would exit each day safely.

He said he called his wife daily to “let her know I was OK.”

Vidinha said being around soldiers from Hawai’i also gave him a sense of security and place. He said he felt that way because he had trained with them for up to six months before deployment to the Middle East.

“I trusted the man standing next to me,” he said, although he probably could have developed the same rapport with soldiers from Mainland units if he had spent time with them.

Vidinha, a 29-year-old resident of Lihu’e and a 1994 Waimea High School graduate, said he worked in the construction trade before he went to Iraq, and will take a “look around” for that type of work in the future.

A resident of Lihu’e as well, Remigio said he is glad to be home, although returning to his job as parts manager at Kuhio Motors will take a little time because he will have to get used to new business operations at the car dealership.

For the time being, just being with family is all he wants, said Remigio, who, along with his wife, Emelyn, raise four children.

Talking with his wife about his time in Iraq has helped him to make the shift from military to civilian life, he said.

The Hawai’i-based soldiers got orders to ship out to the Middle East on Aug. 15, 2004, and they landed in Kuwait in January 2005.

The soldiers then went by convoy to Iraq, a distance of 550 miles, and soldiers were full of anxiety because they never knew if the trucks would run over improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents, Vidinha said.

“We got training on IEDs. It is the biggest killers of people on convoys,” Vidinha said.

Remigio said soldiers entering into Iraqi territory were tense and apprehensive because they were “going into the unknown.”

The “scary parts” of his job “was working at night, trying to stay awake while watching for the enemy, especially if you were at a watch tower,” Remigio said.

Remigio said he was fired on, and that “we had car bomb scares,” but noted, luckily, “apparently, thank God, nobody got hurt.”

Remigio said he had heard about Hawai’i-based troop fatalities, and expressed his sympathy to families of the fallen soldiers.

Remigio said “being with the Hawaii National Guard, being with ‘ohana, knowing your comrades, and basically, local people,” and training, helped him get through his year-long tour in Iraq unscathed.

Also, being focused in his work helped, he said.

Would he go back?

“If we are required to, and I am still active, I would need to go,” said Remigio, who is 41.

Both Remigio and Vidinha said American troops’ presence in Iraq has helped give Iraqi people a chance to make better lives for themselves following the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, and is helping to create a democratic style of government that will benefit them in the long run.

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