A gift of 100 ukuleles brings a touch of aloha spirit to 29th Brigade Combat Team members in Iraq
By Gregg K. Kakesako
One hundred ukuleles are strumming up smiles from Southern California to Iraq, where soldiers of Hawaii's 29th Brigade Combat Team are sharing their love of the instrument.
It started out as a simple idea of Anita Coyoli-Cullen, blossomed under Shirley Orlando, and then the aloha spirit just exploded.
"I wanted to send ukuleles to the troops in Iraq," Coyoli-Cullen of Huntington Beach, Calif., said in a phone interview, "and a bit of aloha because I know having a daughter stationed (there) what it means to get a touch of aloha from home."
Then Coyoli-Cullen contacted Orlando, the owner of a shop specializing in Hawaiian paraphernalia. In May, Orlando donated six ukuleles and song books to the 29th Support Battalion stationed at Anaconda, 50 miles north of Balad.
"I just sent them six on a lark," Orlando said, "and the lark kind of exploded."
The shop is also the home of two ukulele groups -- the Kolohe Ukulele Players and Ukulele Jam. When the Kolohe Ukulele Players learned of Orlando's donation, they in turn donated $600, which was enough to send an additional 30 ukuleles and songbooks to Hawaii's citizen soldiers. So far, 100 ukuleles have made the trip to other units in the brigade.
Lt. Col. Norman Saito, commander of the 29th Support Battalion, wrote earlier this month to Orlando and Coyoli-Cullen: "You have brought joy to all of us, and all of us are determined to learn and play the ukulele of memorable songs of Hawaii that brings our heart and souls close to home from a far away place in Iraq. Well, if anything, I think we made history here in Iraq. Your love and support to us has brought about the goodwill and brotherhood we share with the Iraqi people here at LSA (Logistical Support Area) Anaconda, Iraq through our love of music played by the simple strings and wooden ukulele instrument."
"I read about the Hawaii Army National Guard's deployment in a magazine edited by Mel Ozeki," said Coyoli-Cullen, whose husband, Stephen, is a 1972 McKinley High School graduate who had been an active supporter of her daughter, Diane Gilliam, when she was stationed in Afghanistan in 2003.
Ozeki, a retired Hawaii Army National officer who lives in Las Vegas, edits a magazine called "Ohana," which specializes in stories about Hawaii residents living in California and Nevada. Ozeki put Coyoli-Cullen in touch with Carrie Takenaka, who heads the 29th Brigade Combat Team's family support group.
Saito wrote to Orlando: "Believe me, upon receiving this, our troops gathered around the postal room and opened it to much surprise and a lot of smiles!. As you know the ukulele is so much a part of our lives and culture in Hawaii, as it bonds people together no matter where they are from to join in the fun of singing and dancing. We've been mobilized since August of last year and have been in this theater since the end of January of this year and the months and days have been very long and tiring.
"You have given us the gift of love that gives us the perseverance we need for the months ahead as we continue our mission in Iraq. Our soldiers are not strangers to this instrument, but rather talented music entertainers who've learned how to play the ukulele from their 'Ohana' (families), and our 'Tutus' (elders)."
Saito noted that Sgt. Brandon Kumalae wanted to get back to his roots but never got a chance to play until now: "He was always been a spectator among his friends who sat beside them and just sang along. He is serious about playing the ukulele now, and told us that his grandfather's uncle whose name is Kumalae made ukuleles too, many years ago. He too decided to buy his own ukulele, and went on the Internet to find the Kumalae ukuleles that are no longer available on the market today."
On Wednesday Coyoli-Cullen also got an e-mail from Kumalae, who thanked her for giving him the chance to learn to play the ukulele: "It wouldn't have been possible without your folks' donation."
Coyoli-Cullen also found that Saito attended McKinley and graduated a year before her husband. "It's such a small world," she added.
Orlando, who has run Island Bazaar for the past three years, has never been to Hawaii.
"I've always loved Hawaiian music along with Beach Boys when I was growing up," said Orlando, who has never visited the islands. "I play the guitar and ukulele."
Orlando said she remembered that when her brother was in Vietnam "what kept him going was playing a guitar. It took him away from the ugliness of the war."
So far Orlando has sent nearly 100 ukuleles to soldiers of the brigade's 29th Support Battalion; 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry; and the 227th Engineer Company stationed at Balad and in Kuwait.
"We have another box of 20 which are waiting to be delivered," Orlando said.If you would like to help with this effort, you can email Anita. And while you're at it, why not order a bracelet or two to help support the VFW?For more information, contact:Anita Coyoli-Cullen
Blue Star Mom of Orange County
Silver Star Families Of America
Proud Army Mom of Diane Gilliam
Survivor of Helicopter Crash in Afghanistan
Senior Vice President of the Santa Ana Post 10694
Ladies' Auxiliary of the VFW