Story and Photos by Sgt. Gaelen Lowers
8th Theater Sustainment Command Public Affairs
FORT SHAFTER — Sgt. Bill Carlson will never forget the town in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, because that was the day he almost lost his life.
Carlson, an explosive ordnance technician, 74th Explosive Ord. Detachment, 303rd Ord. Battalion, 45th Sustainment Brigade, 8th Theater Sust. Command, and his unit were conducting a sweep of an abandoned building, searching for any unexploded ordnance so they could return the building, and ultimately the town, back to the local populace.
“I was kneeling down behind cover with some C4 (explosive) in my left hand and evidence in my right,” Carlson said. “After determining that the suspected improvised explosive device was nonfunctional, I stood up and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground.”
Carlson said that it felt like someone had hit him with a cinder block directly in the face.
“Everything happened so fast,” he said. “I was confused and realized that I had been blown up, but didn’t know how. I immediately started to feel around for my legs and arms. I realized that they were still there so I thought, ‘That’s a good sign,’ but that’s also when I realized that I couldn’t see.”
Within four days of the blast, Carlson had been moved from Afghanistan to Germany and then to Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
After a month of extensive treatments and recovery, he returned to Hawaii and spent time at the Warrior Transition Bn., Schofield Barracks. When he returned to his unit, he was told he had another mission.
“One morning in the break room, our acting battalion commander came in and told me about this thing called ‘Operation Vacation,’ and that me and my wife needed to be ready to go have some fun,” Carlson said.
Operation Vacation is a grassroots, nonprofit organization that reunites deserving Soldiers with their families on free vacations. It’s funded entirely by private and corporate donations, support and sponsorship of the organization in the communities it serves.
Five main locations have adopted the Operation Vacation initiative, including North Kohala on the Big Island. Joe Vitorino and his wife Kelly, owners and proprietors of Hawaii Paso Finos Horse Ranch, spearheaded the idea. With the help and support of local businesses, they have provided five vacations and raised more than $25,000 for five Soldiers and their families since June 2010.
“This program is not just for the wounded Soldier, it rewards any Soldier returning from a combat environment,” Vitorino said. “It gives them the opportunity to relax and decompress with their family after their time away.
“It’s important for us to give back and just be a part of this great country,” Vitorino said. “I want to be able to do whatever it is I can to help out.”
Zipline tours, lodging, a rental car, horseback riding, hiking and much more is given by the Vitorinos and local sponsors. However, it’s the attitude and appreciation of the local community that make this trip worth it, Carlson said.
“The local community, here, is something to emulate and be admired. They have a great attitude and great respect for their veterans,” Carlson said.
Carlson was not the first nor will he be the last Soldier to travel to North Kohala and enjoy Operation Vacation’s hospitality.
“People are already coming up to me and asking when the next Soldier is coming into town,” Vitorino said. “Initially, it started out as a one- or two-person effort, and now, the entire community has come together to get and involved and thank our nation’s greatest resource; its Soldiers.”