LAHAINA, Hawaii – In the aftermath of devastating wildfires, the shaka endures as a poignant symbol of peace, goodwill and unyielding hope in Lahaina. With thumbs and pinkies extended, around 660 Guard members use the hand gesture as an emblem of positivity and unity during response operations across the island of Maui.
Whether granting access to motorists at checkpoints or directing traffic, “the last gesture you see is a shaka, as [automobiles] pass you by,” said Spc. Levi Lemisio of Hawaii Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 487th Field Artillery Regiment. “It’s nonverbally communicating the ‘Aloha’ spirit — something that is needed more than ever amid the death and destruction the wildfires have caused.”
As Lahaina grapples with the challenges of recovering from the wildfires, Guard members are staffing 21 entry control points and ensuring public order and safety. The Guard has also fought fires, dispersing 268,200 gallons of water in 149 bucket drops over 44 flight hours. Another 40 Guard members are engaged in search and recovery missions as part of Joint Task Force 5-0.
While natural disasters are not uncommon in the Hawaiian Islands, Spc. Kaimana McBrayer said the fury unleashed by the Aug. 8 fire was particularly heartbreaking.
“It’s unreal, especially as a Hawaiian, because we have a special connection to the land and the people — so this hits close to home,” he said.
McBrayer said the core of the checkpoint mission is to keep people safe, as affected sites could still be hazardous.
“Coming here, I had an idea of what I would deal with,” he said. “But when I started interacting with people who just wanted to go back to their homes and having to turn them away — it’s really hard.”
Alongside McBrayer, Soldiers of 1-487th FA are undertaking various missions driven by a collective commitment to the community.
Spc. Sean Winsko, a cannon crewmember, leverages his civilian career in law enforcement to augment his role managing traffic near Lahaina.
“Our [military] jobs won’t always play a role in what we are doing during the operation, but that kind of flexibility and variety is what I love about being in the National Guard,” he said. “It’s a privilege.”
The 1-487th FA had just returned from training at Fort Johnson, Louisiana, only to be activated a week later to respond to the wildfires.
“So we were already acclimated to the heat,” said Army Staff Sgt. Shane Nakata.
But for the signal support systems specialist and others in his unit, shifting gears from conventional military training to a domestic response operation is what Guard members do.
“It’s just in our nature,” Nakata said.
Still, Guard members are keenly aware of the physical and mental challenges ahead.
Underscoring resilience despite the immeasurable loss of people and homes, Winsko emphasized the strength of those affected by the disaster and the inspiration drawn by personnel supporting recovery efforts, as unified through a common bond of community rooted in aloha.
“No matter what is going on, we all come together and put the people of Maui first,” he said, adding that on a “good day, we’re good. And on a bad day, we make it good.”