Zachary Vieth, 19 months, arched his back and tried to hide his eyes while visiting Santa, also known as Kimo Palakiko, during Holiday Ohana Day 2004 at the Wheeler Army Airfield in Wahiawa yesterday.

Military families
get together
for holiday

Santa and games were
part of the festivities
at Wheeler Army Airfield

There really is nothing like a mother's love.

Even though Army Reserve Capt. John Colburn VII is still training on the mainland for February deployment to Iraq, "I'm worried every minute," said his mother, Gay Lorch.

"Just the idea of it is a worry," Lorch said yesterday at Holiday Ohana Day 2004 at Wheeler Army Airfield, a celebration for families of active military put on by the state -- and a chance to concentrate on Christmas rather than worry about war.

Yesterday's event -- in an empty aircraft hangar and outside in perfect, blue-sky weather -- was attended by about 1,500 military enlistees, their spouses and children, estimated state Adjutant General Robert Lee, commander of the Hawaii Army National Guard.

Lorch said she is proud of her son, who commands the Delta Dragon Company of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry. Beginning in February, his company of 88 soldiers will escort resupply convoys in Iraq in heavily armed Humvees.

Lorch admitted yesterday she has some concern about whether her son's unit will have adequate armor on their vehicles. But, she said, unlike the soldier who asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about a lack of vehicle armor recently, her son and his company wouldn't ever bring the matter up, she said.

"He's so faithful that he's doing his duty for his country. Everything is can-do, not cannot," Lorch said.

Yesterday was the second troop celebration hosted by the state with the help of volunteers and local merchants. The first was at Schofield Barracks in May and the city held a similar event in January in Kapiolani Park to send off Hawaii-based soldiers.

KaU'ialoha Naluai, 3, balanced along a tight rope also known as a "monkey bridge" during Holiday Ohana Day 2004 at the Wheeler Army Airfield in Wahiawa yesterday. The bridge, along with a zip line, were part of a course set up by Boy Scout Troop 201 of Maemae School.

Santa arrived via firetruck at 11 a.m. wearing a tropical-weight aloha-print suit and set up court on a sofa inside a shaded tent, where he gave away animal crackers and asked children to repeat their wish lists loud enough for a parent -- in most cases the nondeployed half of a couple -- to hear.

"I thank these families for their sacrifice on behalf of our country," said Gov. Linda Lingle, who made brief remarks at the beginning of the four-hour event. As long as Hawaii-based troops remain in war zones, "we in Hawaii will do everything we can to help them," she said, including helping organize additional Ohana Days.

Much of yesterday's activity was fun and games for children, including a spinning ride they ran with their own muscle power and booths with carnival standards such as bean bag and ring toss games, basketball hoops and miniature golf putting.

But unlike a for-profit carnival, all the games were free and everybody got prizes.

For the adventurous, Boy Scouts provided a mini ropes course that included a short ride on an aerial zip line. For the wiped out, Girl Scouts provided an indoor reading room, where kids could plop down on cushions and giant stuffed animals to hear a Girl Scout read them a story.

Grinds were hot dogs, chips, sodas and cookies -- supplemented by a steady supply of shave ice and ice cream.

"It's a great thing they've done, because -- especially with the guys gone during the holidays -- it keeps the families occupied," said Melissa Connell, whose husband, Army Lt. Col. Joseph Connell, has been in Iraq for 11 months.

"The Army has done a fantastic job, with all the activities they've planned," and the family support groups, Connell said as her 16-month-old daughter, Natalie, bounced tentatively in a sitting position in one of five inflatable jumping castles. Since her dad left when she was 5 months old, Natalie has learned to walk and talk and "is a whole different person," said Connell.

"I have a picture of him in the living room, and when she walks past it, she says 'Dada,' " Connell said.

Though they'd hoped he might come home as soon as January, Connell said she and her husband weren't surprised when he recently got orders to stay at least several more months.

"We'd talked about it prior to the orders," she said. "We knew you never know what'll happen."

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