Gwen Battad Ishikawa
Life in the military is rarely glamorous. Military service members put their lives on the line to maintain peace and to defend America’s freedom.
For those lucky enough to return home alive, having a place to gather with other veterans and share experiences can bring a sense of belonging and appreciation. It can be a place to get information on resources to help them transition back to civilian life.
Every county in the state of Hawai‘i has organizations for veterans, some organized by the war in which they fought, others by ethnicity.
On the Garden Island, just minutes from Lïhu‘e Airport, is the Kauai Veterans Center, which serves all of the island’s veterans.
Its mission states: “The Kauai Veterans Center exists to promote and enhance the delivery of benefits to all Veterans, their families and dependents of those who have given their lives for their country. It is a standing monument that honors their service, promotes their military heritage and embraces their family.”
The concept of the veterans center was unveiled in the early 1990s by the Kauai Veterans Council, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The 12 veterans organizations represented on the council are the Kauai Veterans’ Club, Disabled American Veterans, Korean War Veterans, American Legion Post 51, American Legion Post 54, Marine Corps League, Navy League, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Military Intelligence Service, Vietnam Veterans, 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Ed Kawamura serves as the commander (president) of the Kauai Veterans Council.
When the Kauai Veterans Center was built, its purpose was simple.
“We wanted a veterans center because all the other organizations used to meet all different places. We wanted to concentrate everything in one place,” said Army veteran Richard “Soupbone” Kashiwabara, who served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The late William “Billy” Fernandes, a member of the Kauai Veterans Council and a former state senator and Kaua‘i County Council member, helped organize the group and was instrumental in securing state funds to build the center and museum. Fernandes served in the Merchant Marines, aiding the Navy in World War II and the Korean War.
Construction began in 1992. In September, however, Hurricane Iniki hit the island and demolished the building’s frame. So, construction began again, from scratch. The center was completed and opened in 1993. Situated on a 1.5-acre parcel, it includes the main building, office space, two conference rooms — the Silver and Bronze Star Conference Room (which can be divided into two rooms) and the Purple Heart Room — a special events ballroom with a commercial-sized kitchen and a museum.
The state Office of Veterans Services, where veterans can find out more about their benefits, is located adjacent to the main hall.
The museum opened in 1994 and is organized by military units and war to recognize and honor all who served. It is a treasure trove with memorabilia ranging from dog tags and K-rations, to weapons, uniforms and patches from other military units.
Among its most prized possessions is a translation of Japanese naval documents stating the imperial navy’s attack orders on Pearl Harbor and the damage report resulting from the bombings. The late Kaua‘i Judge Arthur Komori, a Military Intelligence Service veteran, translated the documents.
Another valuable artifact is a German flag. “Some kid brought it back from World War II, 1944,” said Joseph “JQ” Smith, a retired Marine who volunteers at the museum. “No one knew anything about it, but it came from the bunkers,” he said.
There is also a section dedicated to Kaua‘i women who served in the armed
forces. Among them are Kashiwabara’s daughters, granddaughters and classmates who served in the Army and Navy.
The museum isn’t limited only to the experiences of Kaua‘i natives. It is open to anyone who currently resides on Kaua‘i or who trained or was stationed on the island.
Obtaining artifacts for the museum was a challenge in the beginning.
“When we first started and asked people to bring things, no one brought, so we had very little things,” said Kashiwabara. “As the veterans came by [to look at the museum,] they said, ‘Ah, I going bring my stuff,’ and that’s how we started to improve.
“Then we opened the museum up to everyone. Then the kids would look, and remember their grandfather or father’s things. They didn’t want to let them go until the grandfather or father passed away, and they didn’t want to hold it at their home. So they brought it here instead of throwing it away,” Kashiwabara added.
The museum space is near capacity. If they continue to accept more items, the museum will have to move to a larger space. The cubicles built into the wall in the social hall could display more items, but even those will soon be completely full.
Joseph “JQ” Smith joined the Marine Corps right out of high school when he was 17 years old and served in three wars — World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. Only he and another marine from his unit are still alive.
Originally from California, he moved to Kaua‘i long after the Vietnam War ended. Smith worked for the Reuben’s restaurant chain in Honolulu, which sent him to Kaua‘i. After running their Kaua‘i restaurant for 10 years, Smith returned to O‘ahu and opened his own restaurant called Quinton’s.
In time, Smith returned to Kaua‘i. He was involved with the center from the beginning, learning the ropes from project manager, the late Hiroshi Azeka.
About 12 years ago, while in his mid-seventies, he attended Kaua‘i Community College and earned his license to work as a refrigeration mechanic. He volunteered his time and skills to the Kauai Veterans Center, charging only for materials. Now 89 years old and completely retired, he volunteers at the museum.
Richard “Soupbone” Kashiwabara was born and raised on Kaua‘i. The 79-year-old sansei said his family was supposed to have been interned when World War II broke out, but was spared because of his father’s close relationship with the lunas (plantation bosses), who used their power and influence to keep them from being interned.
Kashiwabara, a veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars, is somewhat of a local version of Pvt. James Ryan, one of the main characters in the film, “Saving Private Ryan.” In the movie, Pvt. Ryan is the youngest of four sons. After his three brothers are killed in combat, a unit led by actor Tom Hanks is ordered to locate Pvt. Ryan and ensure his safe return to headquarters so he can he sent back to his mother in the states.
In Kashiwabara’s case, he was the father of nine children when he was sent to Vietnam. He said he questioned why he had to serve again, especially with nine children to raise. By the time the letter arrived, relieving him of duty, he had already served eight months.
And, just like in the movie, when Kashiwabara was located, he wanted to complete his tour before coming home.
Disenchanted with the Vietnam War, Kashiwabara said he threw away the Combat Infantry Badge and the Purple Heart that had been presented to him. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” he said.
After the war, Kashiwabara went back to work on the sugar plantation. He then worked for Kaua‘i County as an electrician and for the water department for 20 years. He moved to the building division for about five years before retiring.
In keeping with the goal of making the Kauai Veterans Center a “one-stop-shop” for all veterans, plans are in the works to build a veterans’ dispensary and resource facility behind the current building, which will house the CBOC, or Community Based Outpatient Clinic, the state Office of Veteran Services and the federal Office of Veteran Affairs.
The CBOC, currently located in the Solipsys Building near the Kukui Grove
Center, is a medical facility where one or two doctors and nurses are available to provide limited services to veterans. Those requiring more care than what CBOC can provide will be referred to Wilcox Hospital on Kaua‘i or to Tripler Medical Center on O‘ahu. The federal Office of Veteran Affairs is also located in the Solipsys Building. The Office of Veterans Services is currently located adjacent to the center’s main hall.
“Once we establish, all veteran resources will go there [to the new building],” said Kashiwabara. But as the project awaits federal funding, Kawamura said, “Things are up in the air and nothing concrete is in place.”
As a nonprofit, the Kauai Veterans Center relies on income generated through the rental of its conference rooms and main hall. An annual fundraiser called “Night at the Museum” benefits the museum. Special events are also held during the year with proceeds benefiting the center.
The Kauai Veterans Center is open Monday-Friday, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The museum is open Monday-Friday, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. They are located at 3215 Kapule Hwy. in Lïhu‘e. For more information, call (808) 246-1135.