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StarBulletin.com

Life after war


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POSTED: Monday, September 21, 2009

As soldiers return home from war in the Middle East, many have trouble shifting gears from the combat lifestyle to regular society.

“;My biggest struggle was remembering how to drive. It's the simplest things,”; said Col. Arnold Iaea yesterday at the Hawaii Convention Center, where the Hawaii National Guard held an open house for returning personnel.

Iaea served as program director for the so-called 30 Days Yellow Ribbon Event, intended to help more than 2,300 National Guard members and Reservists and their families make a smooth transition back into society and their homes.

The largest reintegration effort in the state featured 23 programs on topics such as veterans affairs, military benefits and transition assistance, plus a college and job fair with 120 exhibitors, said Iaea.

“;During their deployment, our economy changed,”; Iaea said. “;A lot of them worked for Aloha Airlines and companies that now don't exist.”;

; Hamona Dowell helped at the Operating Engineers Hawaii Joint Apprenticeship booth, giving information to soldiers and helping them with excavators and crane simulators on laptops.

“;It's all about giving them information so they know where to go and what direction they want to take,”; said Dowell, who added that the company is looking for construction operators and heavy duty repairmen. “;There's been a lot of interest and a lot of opportunities.”;

Spc. Spencer Thomas looked for a job at the fair that would work around his school schedule at Kapiolani Community College and found some possibilities with Kaiser Permanente and Hawaii Pacific Health.

“;It gives (soldiers) an opportunity, some choices, and even if soldiers don't pick a career or attend the briefings, it still gives them something to think about,”; he said.

Thomas returned from Kuwait with the 29th Brigade in August and started school right away.

“;It's been easy,”; Thomas said of his reintegration. “;My wife has been really supportive, always kept me updated, and talked about plans when I came back.”;

While soldiers and airmen wandered around the college and job fair from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., others sat in meeting rooms to learn about their military perks.

“;When I first came back from Afghanistan, we never had this opportunity,”; said Staff Sgt. Simeon Rojas, who learned that his 18-year-old daughter can receive his college benefits.

Rojas first deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 for a year and was then sent to Iraq in 2008. After serving the required term, he chose to extend his stay to 22 months.

“;Thank God I stayed another year,”; Rojas said, explaining that his daughter can receive a 100 percent tuition waiver and housing allowance, as opposed to a 50 percent scholarship if he had left early.

However, everything comes with a price.

“;The hardest part was integrating to my own kids. I have a 3-year-old now. When I left, she was 1 year old,”; said Rojas. “;It's very challenging but there's a lot of benefits. You feel good coming back because you served your country.”;