The death of 14 army soldiers in a helicopter crash in northern Iraq on August 23 included ten stationed in Hawaii, making that Hawaii's "worst day . . . since the Vietnam War" – that's what the Honolulu Advertiser declared in a page one banner headline and story.
Like much of America, I'm on vacation in late August. For me, it's Hanalei on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where my plan was to snorkel a different North Shore beach every day, stop for a shave ice afterwards, eat local fish, and stay far away from the news. But the Iraq war is inescapable, even in this idyllic escape. At the Big Save in Hanalei, past the taro fields, there's a big display of Spam and another of cheap flip-flops, but the newspaper headline about the "Worst Day" was hard to miss.
The Vietnam-Iraq parallel is a familiar one in debates among pundits and politicians over the war's rationale and future, but the explicit comparison of daily battlefield deaths in Iraq and Vietnam in a local newspaper appears to be something new.
The ten killed near Kirkuk had been part of a 7,000 soldier unit from the army's Schofield Barracks, north of Pearl Harbor, deployed in Tikrit and Mosul. Their mission, originally scheduled for one year, has been extended to 15 months. The Thursday deaths bring the total to 39 soldiers from the Hawaiian unit killed on this deployment, plus an additional 13 killed on a 2004 deployment.
Despite the millions of tourists who come to Hawaii annually, the islands in many ways are a like a series of small towns, and the death of fourteen soldiers on one day left the state "stunned," according to the Advertiser. The paper devoted two full inside pages to the news, in addition to most of the front page and editorial page.
The obvious question is: why? What purpose did these deaths serve? The Advertiser's editorial didn't raise that question – instead it urged that readers "comprehend the number of lives lost." But the editorial cartoon, drawn by Dick Adair of the Advertiser, couldn't have been clearer: George Bush says "Remember what happened when we pulled out of Vietnam. . . " and next to him a combat soldier drawn in Bill Mauldin style says "Then why did we go into Iraq?"
The second day came the news that the soldiers killed in the Blackhawk helicopter crash died not as a result of enemy fire rather because of a "tail rotor malfunction."
The Advertiser also reported that "promotions were handed out posthumously for several of the 14 soldiers who died."
The stories of the dead men filled a page in the Advertiser headlined "Grief and Questions." Captain Nathan C. Hubbard, 21, died in the Blackhawk crash three years after a roadside bomb killed his older brother Jared, 22, near Falujah. The family has one other son, Jason, 33, who is also deployed in Iraq. He told his wife he will be flying back home for good, with his brother's body, under army rules that prevent parents from losing all their children in war.
Spc. Michael A. Hook, originally from Altoona Pa. would have turned 26 on the day his body was scheduled to arrive at Dover Air Force base in Delaware. "He'll be home on his birthday," his stepmother told reporters.
Captain Joshua S. Harmon, 20, grewup in Mentor, Ohio. A family friend told reporters "Josh joined the service with the intent to be a career soldier," but "after one deployment in Iraq, he realized the limitations that gave him. He told us he was frustrated. He became a medic to take care of people, but he would see injured non-soldiers as they made their way down alleys in a hot zone and they couldn't stop. That was very frustrating for him. That's when he decided to go to medical school and become a doctor. . . . The military is shrouded in macho this and macho that, but Josh cared about people – whether they were Iraqis or Americans. The whole mess frustrated him."