By Catherine Tarleton
For the Medeiros ‘ohana of “First Lava Flow” (Honokua) in South Kona, service is a way of life. Both Clarence Medeiros and daughter Kareen did military service in the U.S. Army, yet their legacy of helping others goes far beyond the uniform. In addition to running the family farm and ranch, they always find time to give back—counseling a new recruit on a military career, helping someone find their ancestral roots, or honoring veterans on holidays and public occasions.
“Although I don’t reside in Hawai‘i near my family anymore, every year we pick a theme for the Independence Day Parade in Kona to honor those who served during the Vietnam War era,” says Kareen. “We participate every year, to make sure they are not forgotten.”
“This year’s theme was ‘Dustoff,’ the official call sign of helicopter aeromedical evacuations,” Kareen continues. “Before that was ‘Boots on the Ground’… I sent 20 boxes of boots to commemorate the service members from West Hawai‘i that were killed in action.”
Kareen joined the Army at the age of 38—unlike Dad who signed up at 17. “One of the things that made me decide to enter the military was my father,” says Kareen. “He raised us a certain way, where actions speak louder than words, because that is what leaves a lasting impact in the minds of others… It’s what he did that I witnessed that made a difference for me.”
Clarence grew up in a hardworking ranching and farming family. When he was only 14, his father, a wood carver, was injured while working with the restoration of tiki at Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau. As the oldest son, Clarence had to take charge, working the land, going to school, and helping with his siblings. The home was off-grid, so to watch television, he had to start up the gas generator.
One show that made an impact was “The Boys of Charlie Company.” Watching it, he decided to go where history was being made, and volunteered for the Army right out of high school.
“When I first joined, they asked me to put down three locations where I’d like to be stationed. All of them were Vietnam,” says Clarence, who ended up at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia after Basic Combat Training (BCT). He went to the Pentagon to try and change his orders, and when that was unsuccessful, he went to see Senators Daniel Inouye and Sparky Matsunaga. That is where he learned a soldier had to be 18 to go to Vietnam. “They told me, ‘When you get to your station, fill out the form to request a transfer when you make 18.’ I did it three times, and the third time finally got ‘em.”
Stationed in Germany at that time, he requested a stopover in Hawai‘i, to marry Nellie, his high school sweetheart, just a week before going to war. During his yearlong tour, he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade, and transported out by a Dustoff Medevac.
Not long after, Clarence discovered a new interest that would become his passion. “When I first got out of the military, I bought eight acres of land from my uncle,” he says. “When the land went through a quiet title action, I saw all those names, and I asked my father, ‘Who are all these people?’ I needed to know.” In the intense research that followed, Clarence learned that the family had “collateral-lineal” ties to the monarchy. “Kalākaua did not have kids, so he is my great-great-great-granduncle,” Clarence says.
He continued to research, and soon had a house full of charts, papers, and boxes full of records. He volunteered at the Mormon Church in order to learn more. “I was good at it. When somebody needed help, I could tell them, ‘You can go to this drawer, this book, this film.’” He stayed on for more than 20 years, helping countless people connect with family ties around the world.
Kareen and her brother Jacob, like Clarence, grew up with the powerful work ethic of ranch and farm life. “In the beginning, my job was to take care of my brother and cook the meals,” says Kareen. “Once my brother and I were able to help out, we became a four-man team. We would get up really early and Mom and I would make breakfast, pack lunches. Then we’d head out, do what we needed to do for the day… I can see now how blessed we were to have responsibilities, to be self-sufficient. I think the younger generation struggles a little bit with that.”
Kareen graduated from Konawaena High School in 1990, as a young single mom. Kareen says that the pregnancy made her grow up fast. “I thought, ‘I need to have a plan and I need to have one quick.’” Bravely, she finished high school, and continued college part time while working and taking parenting classes to be the best mom she could for her son, Lincoln.
In 1995, Kareen’s daughter Yvette “Ku‘ulei” was born. Sadly, at age four, she was diagnosed with a terminal illness that took her life about a year later. Before she died, Ku‘ulei got her picture in the newspaper, when the Medeiros ‘ohana was named 1999 Big Island Family of the Year, by Child & Family Service. From that tragedy, Kareen found a new strength.
“I made it my life’s mission not to take anything for granted,” Kareen says of that difficult time. “Every person I encounter and everything is a learning experience for me. If I can do something to better myself, do something to help somebody else, make them a little happier, I want to do it. Otherwise I’d be walking through life with no purpose.”
“I started to see things differently, and chose to put myself out there, push myself, and see what I was capable of,” she says. One day, in 2010, Kareen decided to march to a very different drum. Without telling anyone, she drove to the Army recruiter’s office and asked to take the placement test on the spot. Within a week she was sworn in, in Honolulu. After the ceremony, she called her parents, who were visiting Senator Daniel Akaka in Washington DC at the time.
Clarence was shocked, but supportive. “I thought the Air Force would have been less physically and mentally challenging for her in terms of training. And having served in a combat zone, I did not want my daughter to serve in combat either,” he says. “But once she made up her mind, she was determined.”
Kareen celebrated her 39th birthday during BCT and was the oldest person in the company of 240 cadets, mostly under 20, who nicknamed her “Grandma Wrinkles.” Regardless, she was ranked third highest overall and top female in the physical fitness program.
After BCT and further training, she received orders for South Korea. Once there, she found something unusual in her living quarters. “Somebody had left a large binder called ‘Continuity Book,’” says Kareen. “I read the entire contents in the binder, and thought, ‘Let me go and ask my chain of command who it belongs to.’”
The binder, it turned out, was a handbook for a special program called Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS), which assists soldiers with morale and welfare throughout their tour of duty overseas, helping them be more physically and mentally resilient.
Trying to track down the book’s owner, Kareen went to see the Battalion Command Sergeant Major. He told her about the BOSS program, asked if she read the book, and if she was interested in the material. Not long after, Kareen found herself attached to the garrison with a responsibility under BOSS for 20,000 soldiers, a position normally filled by an E-7 (Senior Non-Commissioned Officer). She loved the work, in spite of many challenges and lack of sleep.
“There are a lot of every day issues in the Army that don’t deal with being deployed to a combat zone—primarily suicides and substance abuse.” says Kareen. The BOSS program worked to mentor the soldiers, to help with emotional and physical wellbeing. “We try to help mentor them to be the people they need to be. To wear that uniform with respect,” Kareen says.
The Family Today
At present, Kareen and husband Kimo, an active duty Army soldier, are stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. Since she left the military in 2013, Kareen has finished her Master’s degree, and wants to work for the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, assisting with large-scale crises and natural disasters.
As an Army career counselor, Kareen guides newcomers as well as those nearing retirement. “My mission is to help soldiers and their families improve their lives through academics, and develop a plan that will benefit them long term. That way, it gives them options with their career of interest, and more opportunities for advancement,” says Kareen. “It is very, very fulfilling to pursue this mission every single day.”
Back home, Clarence and Nellie continue to serve their community in numerous ways—preserving historic trails, advocating for Native Hawaiian rights, battling Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death, and helping families trace their genealogy. Their quest for answers has taken them around the world—to Portugal, China and all over the US.
“Every year when we go (to the mainland) I try to track down family members—California, Texas, Chicago and across the country. We don’t waste time gambling in Vegas,” Clarence says with a laugh. “It’s very rewarding. Six years ago, we went to San Diego. I went to the county office, and other sources, and did the same thing I do here—I finally ended up meeting two cousins.”
This year, Clarence and Nellie will travel to Vietnam, the place that separated them 47 years ago, and for Nellie to actually see the places that she only read about in the letters from Clarence. Whether or not they find a new family member remains to be seen. Regardless, the ever-expanding Medeiros ‘ohana may be separated by miles and oceans, but they are inseverably united in their commitment to service, and deeply rooted in love and respect. ❖
All photos courtesy of the Medeiros Family.