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Hawaii Army National Guard soldiers bring aloha, and safety, to seven bases in Afghanistan

A Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar, used by the Hawaii Army National Guard during deployment training at Fort Sill, Okla., in June, 2019.

THERESA GUALDARAMA/HAWAII ARMY NATIONAL GUARD

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: November 11, 2019

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — This Veterans Day, while many headed to the beach or cooked burgers on the grill, about 350 Hawaii Army National Guard soldiers were on unique duty in Afghanistan, and will continue to be through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year celebrations that they’ll miss before heading home in the spring.

They are most certainly missed at home, but they are also loved at the seven bases where they are stationed — and not just for the aloha spirit and shakas that they bring.

The 1st Battalion, 487th Field Artillery soldiers have a mission known as “counter-rocket, artillery, mortar,” or C-RAM for short, using a weapon system that shoots down incoming enemy rockets with a rapid-fire pulse of 20-mm rounds.

That makes them pretty popular on base.

“When my guys are out and about (on base) and people understand what they do, it’s funny, we’re like loved, totally loved. Everybody loves the C-RAM guys when we’re around,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. David Hatcher from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

Since deploying to Afghanistan in early July, Hawaii Guard soldiers have experienced more than 100 rocket attacks and over 150 incoming rockets across the seven bases where they are located. Most are Chinese-made 107-mm rockets.

The Hawaii soldiers with the “Hiki No” battalion operate the Land-Based Phalanx Weapon System, which looks like a “Star Wars” R2-D2 droid paired with a six-barrel Gatling gun that spits out 75 rounds a second to destroy enemy rockets in flight.

The semitrailer-mounted and gimbaled system links to an engagement operations room and acquisition radars that track the missile flight. The 1-487 is the first battalion as a whole in the Army to have such a C-RAM mission.

Navy ships use the Phalanx close-in weapon system for seaborne missile threats.

“Our units have performed outstandingly, engaging these threats, resulting in much of these rockets either being deflected off course or completely destroyed in midflight,” said Hatcher, who spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by phone and email.

The soldiers operate the weapons systems 24/7, and their actions already “have saved many lives of both U.S. and coalition personnel,” said the 49-year-old Nanakuli man, who works full time for the Hawaii Army National Guard.

Their actions also have “protected millions of dollars of critical military assets and facilities,” he said. Dozens of the Hawaii soldiers have been awarded Combat Action Badges for performing meritoriously while engaging or being engaged by the enemy.

Between 12,000 and 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan in the longest-running war in U.S. history. President Donald Trump has complained of “endless wars” in the Middle East, and defense planners envision a drawdown.

With Syria, Iran and China commanding media attention, Hatcher acknowledges that the effort in Afghanistan takes a back seat to other worldwide affairs.

“Nobody’s forgotten that we’re here, even though it can feel that way sometimes,” he said. “But we’re no longer in the forefront of people’s minds.”

Hatcher said his soldiers are arrayed at seven bases in seven different provinces: Parwan, Nangarhar, Logar, Uruzgan, Kandahar, Helmand and Herat. They are expected to be in Afghanistan for nine months.

Bigger bases have multiple C-RAM systems. Bagram Airfield, headquarters for the Hawaii Guard, has about 100 of the citizen soldiers, Hatcher said. It also has a Green Beans Coffee shop, a small Pizza Hut, a movie theater and several dining facilities.

As few as 35 Hawaii soldiers are at smaller bases that are about four football fields long and just as wide and surrounded by earth-filled “Hesco” barriers and topped by razor wire — and are much more austere in comparison.

“Five minutes, you can pretty much get anywhere around the base,” said Staff Sgt. Paul Calamayan, 27, who is at one of those smaller bases in Uruzgan province.

The Hawaiian Airlines aircraft mechanic is a battle noncommissioned officer in the operations room at the base, which he said gets rocketed a few times a month.

Calamayan, who lives in Ewa Beach, said everyone has to act fast when an alert comes in that a missile is headed their way. When there’s a successful interception, “you can see almost like a burst of the rocket when it’s hit,” he said. “Or, if it’s deflected, you can see it moving in midair as if it were knocked off its route.”

Afghanistan has been a “big eye-opener” with his base in a desertlike bowl surrounded by mountains.

“I’ve always heard a lot of stories from the senior members and the leaders before me that have been on previous deployments,” he said, “so for me to come and experience this firsthand, like just breathing the air here and being in a desert as opposed to being back home surrounded by the water, it’s definitely a culture shock.”

Spc. Jaydein Soriano-Manner, 23, a Phalanx operator who is at a small base in Logar province, said seeing the rounds fire from the gun system in one long “brrrup” sound “has a bit of adrenaline to it.”

“You feel proud because we’re actually doing our mission out here,” said Soriano-Manner, who works at the Ace Hardware in Laie back home. He says his base, with several hundred Americans, is targeted a few times a week.

He said it’s good that he’s single so he doesn’t have to worry about a relationship back home.

“But I also do miss my family,” he said. “I do call them every other day to see how they are doing. They message me out of the blue sometimes.”

Trump in August said he wanted to bring the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan down to 8,600. A proposed peace deal fell apart in September. The Pentagon has said a withdrawal would be “conditions based.”

In the meantime the Hiki No soldiers of the 1-487th try to keep the bases safe from the attackers, who don’t want Americans there.

“I knew we’d be saving lives while we are here,” Hatcher said. “But not until we got on the ground and with the guys actually being under attack by rocket attacks and shooting them out of the air and doing what we do, did I realize how important and how vital this mission ended up being. I’m extremely proud of our guys, men and women.”

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