Hawaii Guard troops return from 11-month deployment
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser June 29, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Eight members of the Hawaii Army National Guard's 117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment returned home Monday from an 11-month deployment.
As they pulled in to the Waiawa Armory in a van, fellow Guard members came out to greet them with hugs and jokes before they turned in their gear. Then they went to greet waiting family and friends who cheered them and showered them with lei.
Sgt. Gavin Ching leaned down to hug his grandma, Wehilami Ching, who was sitting in her wheelchair. Several other soldiers also came over to hug her.
"I'm proud of them, " she said. "I'm proud of all of them."
The Hawaii Guard forces were deployed in support of Operation European Assure, Deter and Reinforce as they documented the operations of U.S. and NATO forces that have deployed into the Baltic states of Eastern Europe after Russia invaded western Ukraine last year.
Ching said it was his fourth deployment with the unit. But it was unlike other deployments, explaining that, "Being from Hawaii, a lot of us were not used to 10-degree weather and snow for about six months out of the time we were there." When asked what it felt like to be home, he replied, "Humid, we definitely forgot about that. But it's good to be back in warm weather."
They were mostly in southern Poland, but their missions also took them to Latvia, Lithuania and Finland.
In all, the team generated 2, 400 photos, videos, articles and graphics. Their photos and videos were republished widely, picked up by NBC and Al Jazeera as well as Russian and Chinese state media—among many others. One of the Hawaii Guard members, Staff Sgt. Matthew Foster, was recognized as the 2022 Military Writer of the Year by the Army National Guard for his work in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine and Russia have been at war since 2014 when Russian forces invaded Ukraine's Eastern Crimea region, leading to a standoff punctuated by bursts of violence. But last year, Russian forces tried to seize the capital of Kyiv, sparking a much larger conflict that has killed tens of thousands and led to a massive arms buildup.
Eastern European countries fearing Ukraine's fate have requested NATO reinforcements and have begun stocking up on weapons. In April, Finland, which shares a border with Russia and a contentious history, joined the alliance after years of saying it had no interest. Sweden, which also had stayed out of NATO, is also trying to join.
Thousands of American troops are now operating in Baltic NATO countries bordering Russia in what the Pentagon says is meant to reassure allies. Media outlets have been dependent on photos and video taken by troops like the Hawaii Guard members to have a sense of what's going on with U.S. forces in the region.
Throughout these deployments, groups such as the Pentagon Press Association and the Military Reporters &Editors Association have called for greater media access to these operations and of American assistance to Ukraine—both in the U.S. and Europe.
In a January letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, MRE's board of directors wrote that "since the start of Russia's latest invasion of Ukraine last year, administration officials have refused media requests to embed with U.S. troops deployed to Europe and denied media access to American military bases overseas. Now that Ukrainian troops are on American soil, there are no operational security reasons to preclude journalists from covering U.S. service members teaching Ukrainian forces at Fort Sill on the Patriot air defense system."
Maj. Thomas Moriyasu, who led the group, said that throughout the deployment he saw "extreme and tremendous growth on all of my soldiers."
Moriyasu said that the first thing he wanted to do after leaving the armory was to pick up some poke on his way home.
"I missed the food, " he said. "You can't get fresh fish in Poland."
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