Service with a smile

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Staff Sgt. Haliaka Moller is on duty Sunday in the operations center at Keaukaha Military Reservation in Hilo.

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Tech. Sgt. Mason Nakayama stands watch Thursday at the traffic checkpoint at the corner of Government Beach Road and Papaya Farms Road in lower Puna.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    A National Guardsmen is silhouetted in red glow from fissure 8 on June 19 in Leilani Estates.

As management of the emergency resulting from the Kilauea volcano eruption that began May 3 transitions from response to recovery mode, the number of Hawaii Army and Air National Guard troops deployed to East Hawaii has declined dramatically.

As of Friday, about 130 National Guard personnel were assigned to lava emergency duty, according to Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony. That’s down from the 207 deployed here just a week earlier, which Anthony described as the largest number of Hawaii National Guard soldiers and airmen called up for domestic operations since the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was hosted in Honolulu in 2011.

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Numbers aside, Guard personnel still man traffic checkpoints in lower Puna and perform roving patrols in lava zones. Their efforts are coordinated by fellow Guard members in an operations center at Keaukaha Military Reservation in Hilo.

Many currently deployed are Big Islanders. They include Tech Sgt. Mason Nakayama and Staff Sgt. Haliaka Moller, both Hilo natives assigned to the Hawaii Air National Guard’s 291st Combat Communications Squadron at KMR.

Nakayama, 57, has been an Air Guardsman for 33 years, while Moller, 47, a former Marine, has almost 16 years of service in the Guard, having enlisted after 9/11. Both were deployed to Kuwait for seven months in 2012 and are proud to be of service at home during the current state of emergency.

“We’re out here dealing with the public,” Nakayama said Thursday while stationed at a checkpoint on Government Beach Road at the corner of Papaya Farms Road. “I try to treat people the way I want to be treated. I smile, chat with people, try to make them smile. They’ve been through a lot. If I can make somebody smile, it’ll make my day.”

Moller, who’s been working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, at the operations center at KMR, now is able to have an occasional day off. She described her job as “to collect all data and then disseminate the information to our personnel, our security and roving team out there in Pahoa.”

“I track everything from personnel to our assets, our vehicles, their movements. I’m more behind the scenes,” she said Sunday.

In civilian life, Nakayama has been in inventory management at Suisan Co. for more than two decades, but during his three-plus decades in uniform, he’s seen several disaster-response deployments statewide.

“One of my first major humanitarian missions was with Hurricane Iniki. We went through a lot, and I liked helping the people,” he said. “This is my second humanitarian mission I’ve done while working with Suisan. The first was the lava flow four years ago out in Pahoa. Met a lot of people out here, and made a lot of friends working the mission. I have a feeling I’m kind of a familiar face out here.”

Tall, trim and fit, Nakayama has a ready smile when dealing with people who lost their homes — and in some cases, their livelihoods. He’s an example of the standards Moller said are ingrained in Guard personnel tasked with a very public mission.

“We brief our people to always be compassionate when dealing with the public,” Moller said. “Always be professional in customs and courtesies. And always go the extra mile with everybody out there, whether at the checkpoints or roving. And always be safe, as well.”

Both have families who are supportive of their missions.

Nakayama and his wife, Sandra, have two adult sons, Robert, 25, and Christian, 21, while Moller has three children, two 19-year-olds she calls “surviving twins of triplets” from a previous marriage, and a 3-year-old son with her second husband. She says her older children and her sister help with the toddler while she and her husband, the fire chief at Pohakuloa Training Area, work.

Moller worked more than 10 years with the federal Transportation Security Administration but currently doesn’t have a civilian job.

“I can volunteer my time doing the mission for as long as possible,” she said.

Moller loves the Guard but can retire after “three years and change.” She said she’ll likely do so to be a full-time mom.

Enlisted personnel are required to retire from the Guard at age 60, so Nakayama will be bidding aloha to his uniform within the next three years, as well.

“I wouldn’t have done this so long if I didn’t enjoy it,” he said.

Years ago, as a single mom, Moller lived in Kapoho. Through tears, she described the love she and her older children have for the lava-inundated coastal community.

“It was sad for them,” she said. “That’s where they learned how to swim. They have wonderful memories. It hurt them so bad.

“When I met my second husband, he rented a vacation home in Kapoho, and, not even realizing my history, it was the same house we were staying at that was owned by my sister-in-law’s grandfather.”

Both said their interaction with the community during the current lava crisis has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Our community is very supportive. They always approach us, thanking us for our service,” Moller said.

Nakayama described the current mission as “totally different” than during the June 27, 2014, lava flow emergency that frayed the nerves of Pahoa-area residents for months but destroyed only one home.

“It’s really affecting a lot of people directly,” he said. “We’re trying to put our feet in their shoes and understand what they’re going through. There are some who didn’t welcome us with open arms, but most of the community really have. And being local, we can understand that.”

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“We’re out there for the community,” Moller added. “It’s mission first but aloha always.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.