Arms Now Used Only for Hugs

Times Staff Writers

Monday was homecoming day in California for 600 soldiers of a National Guard battalion that officials said suffered the most combat casualties of any California unit since the Korean War, more than half a century ago.

At the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Los Alamitos, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger welcomed back Southern California members of the statewide 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment that, during a year in Baghdad, lost 17 men, including its commanding officer. More than 100 of its soldiers were wounded in action.

“Some made the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” Schwarzenegger said.

The governor received cheers from the 250 Southern California soldiers when he added:

“In my movies I’ve been many times the action hero, but I know the difference between movies and real life. In real life you are the true action heroes.”


In Sacramento, a military band played “California Here I Come” as 350 Northern California soldiers from the 1-184th filed off charter jets and were mobbed by their cheering and weeping families.

Staff Sgt. Paul Hernandez, 42, a Discovery Bay concrete contractor, was greeted by 20 joyous relatives including his father, a 1951 Purple Heart recipient wounded in Korea.

Hernandez, who as a Marine served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, bore a tattoo on his left arm he said he got at 3:30 a.m. Monday outside Fort Bliss, Texas, where the battalion went through reentry processing.

The tattoo shows a combat service medal with the initials “O.I.F.,” for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said he wore it to honor a fallen friend and comrade, Staff Sgt. Daniel Scheile, 37, killed in Baghdad on Sept. 23. In civilian life, Scheile worked for Hernandez as a concrete finisher.

With 4-year-old son Paul Jr. on his shoulders, Hernandez said he was proud of the battalion’s work in Iraq. “The people love us there; they really do,” he said.

But as his wife, beauty salon manager Kim Hernandez, 29, nodded in assent, he announced that he would not be going into combat again. “One more year left and I’ll have 20 years of service,” Hernandez said. “This is my last war.” Under guard enlistment terms, without reenlisting he cannot be asked to go back to Iraq.


The Modesto-based 1-184th, comprising companies from Fullerton, Dublin, Auburn and Oakdale, has been beset with problems from its first days of training in the New Mexico desert, where some soldiers complained of poor equipment and inadequate training.

In July, 12 soldiers from Fullerton-based Alpha Company were charged with misconduct for allegedly mistreating Iraqi prisoners. In October, the military announced that three sergeants had been imprisoned and four other soldiers sentenced to hard labor for their actions. The incident led to the removal of Battalion Cmdr. Lt. Col. Patrick Frey, a Salinas special education teacher.

Frey was replaced by Col. William Wood, a regular army officer, who was killed Oct. 27 by a secondary explosion as he rushed to the aid of a fallen officer. Of the unit’s 17 soldiers killed in action, 10 were from the California National Guard and seven were attached to the California battalion from other regular and reserve units.

In a three-year period in which more than 7,000 California National Guard troops have served either in Iraq or Afghanistan, several units have been in battle. Among them were the 1-160th Infantry from Riverside, which conducted missions in the heart of Baghdad, and Petaluma-based Alpha Company of the 579th Engineers from Santa Rosa, which patrolled the perimeter of the big American air base near Balad, north of Baghdad.

Despite daily brushes with danger, the Riverside group returned home last year with only a handful of casualties and no combat deaths. The Petaluma unit suffered three dead and 20 wounded.

But no National Guard unit saw as much combat as the 1-184th.

Speaking at the Sacramento airport welcoming ceremony, National Guard Brig. Gen. Louis Antonetti said the 1-184th conducted “nearly 7,000 combat patrols, capturing hundreds of insurgents, while also working to improve conditions for the Iraqi civilian population.”


Antonetti said that news reports focusing on problems in the 1-184th obscured its successes. “It’s too bad that the humanitarian stories and the civic project stories that the 184th has worked on in the previous year have not gotten as much notice as other issues.”

Most soldiers interviewed Monday said that despite their battalion’s high-profile problems, they were proud of their accomplishments and thrilled by their welcome Monday.

“We had no idea there was going to be this many people to greet us,” said Sgt. John Lemar, 23, a squad leader from Valencia, as he looked out on more than 1,000 people in the Los Alamitos auditorium.

In a short speech, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) noted the contrast between the enthusiastic welcome for the Iraq veterans compared with those of the Vietnam War decades ago. “Thanks for showing this country how to receive its men and women in uniform,” Sanchez said.

The soldiers laughed and shouted “No, no, no!” when the battalion chaplain, Maj. Robert Blessing, urged them to drink alcohol in moderation.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) offered to buy each returning soldier a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine. There was no sign that he was taken up on the offer.


Tempest reported from Sacramento and Reza from Los Alamitos.