Combat behind him, Maui man heads to Pentagon

Lt. Col. Kawaguchi is now deputy director of Army protocol in the office of the Chief of Staff for the Army

Lt. Col. Bryce Kawaguchi is pictured recently in Washington, D.C., where he serves as deputy director of Army protocol in the Pentagon. Kawaguchi, a 1997 Lahainaluna graduate, manages special events and ceremonies hosted by senior Army leadership. Photos courtesy Bryce Kawaguchi

On the Fourth of July holiday in 2009, barbecues and fireworks were the furthest thing from Army Capt. Bryce Kawaguchi’s mind.

Insurgents in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, were attacking Kawaguchi’s post from all sides. The outpost had caught fire, wounded soldiers needed to be evacuated and communications were down.

“It was a very hectic, mentally draining day,” Kawaguchi said. “Everyone was shooting, and it was hard to hear. I had to stay calm.”

As the commander of the outpost, Kawaguchi didn’t have time to panic; he had to gain control of the fight and take care of his wounded. Aided by gunfire and bombs from air support, the company eventually drove the attackers away.

Now a lieutenant colonel, Kawaguchi spent Fourth of July in a very different setting this year — on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children. His days on the battlefield behind him, the 1997 Lahainaluna grad now works at the Pentagon as the deputy director of Army protocol in the Office of Chief of Staff for the Army, making sure that events such as the retirement of high-ranking military officers go smoothly and follow Army protocol.

Then-Capt. Bryce Kawaguchi (left) makes defensive plans alongside 1st Sgt. Chad Wiley at the patrol base in Naka District in East Paktika in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009.

“It was time for me to move on, time for me to move beyond the tactical level,” the 39-year-old Kawaguchi said Sunday. “No better place than the Pentagon.”

Kawaguchi, who took on his new role as deputy director two months ago, has come a long way from his boyhood days in the islands. Born and raised on Maui, Kawaguchi grew up in a tightknit, supportive community in Lahaina. He played all kinds of sports, but golf became his specialty — he was an outstanding junior golfer who would go on to compete for both Lahainaluna High School and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Kawaguchi’s grandfather had served in Europe as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, and his father served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. He grew up around military influences — listening to his father’s stories, watching “G.I. Joe” with his older cousin and even feeling motivated to read a biography of Gen. George S.Patton in the 5th grade.

After graduating from high school, Kawaguchi was recruited to West Point for golf, where he would not only prepare for combat but also learn how to compete in the snow.

“I remember being on the Yale golf course,” Kawaguchi said. “It started snowing while I was on the tee. . . . And by that time, I wasn’t hardened by the Army, so I was cold. I had three coats on, so I could barely even swing.”

Kawaguchi finished at West Point in 2001, not long before the attacks on the twin towers in the World Trade Center in New York City. He was training in Fort Benning, Ga., when reports started coming in of the Sept. 11 attacks. Out in the field with no cellphones, Kawaguchi and his fellow soldiers had no idea what was happening.

“As clearer reports came in, we realized what was going on, and it was like, ‘Well, we’re probably going to go to war, and this is what we’re training for,’ “ Kawaguchi recalled. “I was prepared to do whatever our nation called us to do.”

But before his first overseas deployment, Kawaguchi had to face the rigors of Ranger School, a grueling 62-day course that teaches small-unit tactics under conditions of extreme stress. Kawaguchi remembered being “completely sleep deprived and food deprived” as he learned to survive in the extreme cold of the Tennessee mountains and watched snakes slither by while training in Florida.

“I know my body a lot better,” Kawaguchi said. “As far as how hard and how far I can push my body both in sleep and hunger and in everything.”

Kawaguchi’s father was a veteran as well as a football and baseball coach, and Kawaguchi credits his sports background for giving him the mental toughness to endure Ranger School.

“Because you know most infantry officers at that point in time — 22, 23 years old — most of us can go through it physically,” he explained. “But whether or not you have the mental toughness to go through that training, it’s a little different. That’s what separates, in my opinion, the guys who get through Ranger School.”

Kawaguchi’s mental strength would prove vital on the battlefield. His first overseas assignment was to South Korea, where he relished not only the culture and food, but also the “wartime combat mission that could be enacted at any time,” given the unpredictable North Korean regime and the fact that the Korean War was technically not over. After serving in Korea from 2002 to 2004, Kawaguchi was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq.

“I was cautious, but kind of excited to finally test what I was trained to do,” Kawaguchi said.

The heat hit him first. Ramadi was “barren, just an unforgiving type of environment” where the base was under fire every day around sunset and sunrise.

“The good part was at least you knew when it was coming,” Kawaguchi said.

Kawaguchi remembered doing patrols and trying to provide “some sense of security” for the historic January 2005 elections, the country’s first free elections in more than 50 years. However, Kawaguchi recalled a “measly turnout” of about 50 people. Most were likely still afraid or didn’t care, he said.

As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Kawaguchi is often asked how the two countries compared. But Kawaguchi said it’s hard to make a blanket statement about the two — both were vastly different depending on where a person was stationed. He went from the intense heat of Ramadi to the cooler mountains of East Paktika in Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. The fighting in Paktika Province was “old school — people shooting at each other, and whoever owns the high ground controls the fight,” he recalled.

From March 2009 to March 2010, Kawaguchi commanded a company at Combat Outpost Zerok. On July 4, 2009, insurgents attacked the outpost from all sides. An enemy round hit the outpost and burst, starting a fire dangerously close to the mortar rounds.

“I was kind of worried about that,” Kawaguchi recalled. “I was concerned about getting the wounded out. My communications was knocked down at the start, so I had to worry about getting that up. The other concern was making sure they didn’t penetrate on any side, because once they’re in, it becomes a tougher fight.”

Years of training kicked in.

“I don’t have time to think about myself,” Kawaguchi said. “I don’t have time to get scared. I’m thinking about what I need to do to kill the enemy and gain an advantage as soon as possible.”

Kawaguchi called in air support, and as airplanes swooped in with bombs and his company continued to take out insurgents, the fighting “naturally died off.” Later, the fight would appear on German YouTube, filmed by insurgents who doctored the footage, hoping to use it as propaganda.

Kawaguchi would go on to serve in Kosovo in 2012 and Kuwait from 2015 to 2016 before returning to Afghanistan as a special operations planner in 2016 and 2017.

His new job at the Pentagon often puts him in the room with the Army’s top leaders, members of Congress and officials from foreign armies. Kawaguchi manages special events and handles protocol questions, such as which type of flag to use and what size. He’s worked events such as the retirement of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who resigned in April as national security adviser after clashing with President Donald Trump, and retired in May.

In Washington, D.C., where the average citizen seems more informed than most, Kawaguchi is well aware of the political tension in the country and said he finds himself “paying a little more attention” to current events.

“I think it’s given me a true appreciation of what it means to be an American,” Kawaguchi said, later adding that he thought “globally we should be leaders — a responsible leader in ethics, human rights, international order.”

When asked whether the U.S. is currently that kind of leader, Kawaguchi declined to say, explaining that as someone in uniform, he has to be careful what he says about the administration. Overall, he said, the political tension hasn’t impacted his job.

“I’m glad that I’m here,” he said. “I get to see how something as big as the Army runs.”

He added that “It’s not that we get recognized by the seniors (leadership) but it’s the people who are retiring or the people who are getting promoted. It matters to them. Every event is personal to that person. And when we do it well, there’s satisfaction because that person had a professional and well-put-together event.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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