He was up before the rest of us today, in his own private Dawn Patrol, and he will be again tomorrow.
Not just an early riser, Ryan Taniguchi is alert and ready for anything the moment he opens his eyes. He just might sleep with one eye open at all times.
Does he ever really sleep well?
“I try,” he says, smiling, but the grin isn’t a tell, or an indicator of any kind. Taniguchi is always smiling when he talks to people, when he passes students in halls of Hilo High School where he coaches the wrestling team, runs the Junior ROTC program and serves as the school’s strength and conditioning coach.
The smile is a mask, in some personal sense, but he earned that mask with precious chunks of heart and soul. It is part of him, it is the same smile he wore on patrol in his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan — two of each — when he was a sergeant leading a Combat Engineer Unit that looked for trouble and found it, daily.
Last week, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Taniguchi sat in the courtyard at Hilo High and talked a bit about where he has been. School was out, nobody was crisscrossing campus for classes. Songbirds said hello, but it was otherwise silent, making his words feel more prominent, like they should have been piped through an intercom through all the rooms of full classes.
The Oahu native recalled his first days in Hilo a few years back when he headed up a search and rescue unit for the Hawaii National Guard and was sent to the Big Island to see if he could help people out who had been impacted by Hurricane Iselle, downgraded to a tropical storm just before it hit.
“A lot of people still do not know how bad that was,” he said of Iselle, which seemed to target a narrow area, but struck with terror. “Houses were crushed to the ground, roads were completely covered, there was a panic that set in.”
Taniguchi had barely put his feet on the ground before he was involved in a tense scene where the Wailuku river had crossed a road and isolated a house where a grandmother and a couple teenage girls had been stranded.
He tied off a rope and made his way through the river, rushing 4-feet deep, dragging anything in its way. He got to the other side and one-by-one, secured people to him, took them to safety and went back for more.
That experience helped him make the decision to move to the Big Island and be of more help on a daily basis, which he has been ever since.
He does not sleep well or often. He patrolled in some of the most dangerous areas of Iraq and Afghanistan. He lived through the experience of seeing his buddy take a bullet through the head and not having the ability to stop and try to help — they had to leave him there as they were all under fire. He has seen American soldiers have their legs blown off. He has been in secure, protected army vehicles that were bombed.
He hasn’t just read about post traumatic stress disorder, he experiences it on a daily basis. He has been diagnosed and these days he uses that trauma to make things better for others.
“The first thing you learn, the first thing they teach, is that (PTSD) makes you want to isolate yourself, close yourself off, keep away from people,” he said. “Through the (veterans administration_, through the Wounded Warriors, I was able to connect with a lot of people in my situation, they are the ones who helped guide me back.
“My response to (PTSD) is to open myself up, get involved, give more time, that’s my cure, that’s my life.”
It makes all the sense possible for the situation in which he was thrown that shatters anyone’s concept of sensibility. The elderly woman on the street might have a bomb strapped to her. Children can be used as lures to attract American soldiers into danger. Nothing is what it seems and everything is life-threatening.
“The untold story of a soldier,” Taniguchi said, “is to have the courage to face the unknown. If you were to go to Afghanistan today, I could not tell you what you will experience, what to look for. It is everywhere, all around you. When you think nothing is there, you are probably thinking what they want you to think.
“We went there to fight for other people’s freedom,” he said, “and we did what we did. Is it better? I can’t tell you, I don’t know. I know we all came back with scars, some of them you can see, some of them are inside us, but we are all scarred.”
He was once in a unit that had to walk “about 300 meters,” to escort a state department worker from one location, deemed unsafe, to another just down the street that was thought to be much safer. Taniguichi walked on one side of the street with a few others to ensure no one would jump out of an abandoned store front and open fire on the state department worker who was on the other side of the street in another group, protecting her. A car drove down the street, slowly, and passed. Then it turned around, came back fast, drew to the side of the street where the woman was being protected and suddenly blew up.
“It was bad,” he said. “We lost six or seven people, there were a lot of injuries. It all took place in a matter of a few minutes. It was a long day.”
On a daily basis, if not hourly, Taniguichi said soldiers asked themselves why there were there. Then they went and did their jobs for the day. They heard the call to arms, they responded.
He is well aware that parts of him are broken inside and will not recover to the good health they attained before his tours of duty. His sacrifices were made for the country, for all of us and in the insanity and death that he lived through during those tours, he was bolstered by having a large contingent of soldiers from Hawaii in his advisory team.
“We had a rapport,” he said, “we probably understood each other in some ways, better than most teams over there. That didn’t make it good, but it could have been worse without those guys.”
He has dedicated himself to giving back, being involved, investing in the community and its youth. Connecting with people, researchers are discovering, can be a lifesaver for trauma victims.
In some ways, he said, his tours of duty were about destruction and death, things coming apart, inexplicable, violent chaos and death. What he is doing now is the polar opposite.
Taniguichi is building things. He has energized the wrestling team at Hilo that had 15-18 students trying out before he got there and now has over 40 and the number is growing. Once a week he gets up at 3 a.m. to take an online class in Exercise Science and Training that will enhance his abilities.
The obvious question, after all of this, is why he is doing what he doing, leading the Junior ROTC program. Does he want to develop more soldiers?
“There is no military obligation whatsoever,” to the program, he said. “We do no recruiting at all and I never even mention the military.
“This is about goal-setting, self-awareness, it is a way to try to motivate students to become better citizens, or to be the best citizens they can be.”
The need for more people like him feels desperate. Mentors, role models, people with challenging experiences who want to pass on their wisdom.
How does he motivate as a wrestling coach?
“You provide them with a challenging environment,” he said, “they are matched evenly in weight and you don’t want the most experienced going after the least experienced in the first session, but you challenge them.
“I tell them, ‘There’s nothing else like it, this will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, it will be something that takes everything you have to succeed, and you will succeed.
“Once they know how hard it is,” he said, “the real challenge begins because they are then learning the true nature of competition and they can take that with them the rest of their lives.”
They will never be Ryan Taniguichi, but they may learn enough from him to respect themselves enough to accept life’s challenges and because they are not him, at the end of the day, they may just earn a good night’s sleep.
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