Beneath the Pineapple Fields

Soldiers - January 1995 pages 26-27
Story and Photos by Donna Miles

SPEC. David Fishel thinks of his work as putting together a giant puzzle. Sitting at a computer terminal -- his "rack" -- with earphones on his head, he listens to "dits" and "dahs" eight hours a day, every duty day.

One missed Morse code signal, he knows, might be the missing piece of the puzzle -- the difference between good and not-so-good military intelligence.

Along with some 1,350 other members of the 703rd Military Intelligence Brigade, Fishel works in a huge information-collection facility beneath the pineapple fields of Kunia, Hawaii.

The Kunia Regional Signals Intelligence Operations Center, with each of its three floors the size of a football field, was originally built after the Japanese attack on nearby Pearl Harbor in 1941.

"The Hole," as it was then called, remains something of an underground fortress. A long, dark tunnel leads to huge doors that can be "buttoned up" to survive a nuclear blast. Air inside the building is overpressurized to keep nuclear, biological or chemical agents from leaking in before the blast doors could be closed. And five huge generators would keep the facility operating, without missing a beat, during a power failure.

Kunia is protected against other kinds of threats, too. Cpl. Laura Garza and 33 other military police soldiers ensure that only those with the proper clearances enter Kunia, and that classified material doesn't walk out.

And inside Kunia's most classified areas -- called the "secure compartmented information facility" -- music plays from a speaker system to keep outsiders from picking up what goes on inside.

Within their fortress, Fishel and his fellow "Silent Sentinels" of the 703rd MI Bde. work around the clock, seven days a week to track goings-on throughout their assigned areas.

They're part of a joint-service activity focused on signals intelligence that can have a tremendous impact on U.S. policy and military operations.

Collecting intelligence is a cooperative effort. Spec. Richard McConnell keeps the station's banks of high-performance computers, recorders and receivers running. Spec. Christopher McBride peers at a computer monitor, watching blips on the screen to identify signals. Spec. Daniel Wolff translates Morse code into a readable form. Sgt. James McCubbin analyzes messages while Spec. Ira Bowden transmits information generated at Kunia to military headquarters and units around the world.

"We're the eyes and ears that see and hear what goes on," said Wolff. "We process it and get it off to the right places."

Those "right places" are determined by soldiers like Sgt. Jeanene Hornberger, an electronic warfare signals intelligence analyst. She and her fellow soldiers sift through the tremendous volume of information collected at Kunia every day.

"The traffic we get covers a broad range of things," explained Spec. Patrick Reilly, who supports the analysts. "We make interpretations of the traffic to discern what's important."

When analyzing intelligence, "we track patterns to figure out what people are up to," said Spec. Brian Bailey. "We're trying to find out what Joe Smith over there is going to do based on what he's done for the past 20 years."

Sometimes the military significance of the intelligence is clear-cut. "For example, if you have an artillery group sitting on a border, you try to figure out its size, its chain of command and whether it's doing an exercise or a mass movement," Bailey said.

But not all intelligence seems so significant at first blush. "With intelligence, you get pieces that in and of themselves may seem pretty innocuous," said Lt. Col. Duane Roberts, deputy commander of the 703rd MI Bde. "But when you put them together, it's like piecing together a puzzle."

That process, which comes from translating Morse code for hours at a stretch or analyzing the same sets of data over and over, can get pretty tedious. That's especially true for soldiers accustomed to tactical military intelligence, supporting military units directly in the field.

"Tactical MI is a lot more hands-on," said Fishel. "There can be a lot of frustration sitting down for eight hours a day analyzing a signal."

On top of that, new MI soldiers assigned to Kunia face what SSgt. Xavier Walker calls "the nervous factor" -- that scary feeling they get when they realize they're dealing with the "real thing."

The job may be tedious at times and nerve-wracking at others, "but it's never routine," said Wolff. "Every single day I step in here, I learn something new. There's always something different."

The importance of keeping on top of things on a daily basis, regardless of what's happening in the world, isn't lost on the Kunia soldiers. "How well I do on the job directly affects the success of our military," said Fishel matter-of-factly.

"We're the soldier's first line of defense," continued Bailey. "The individual foot soldier doesn't know what's going on out there unless we catch it and put it out."

Foot soldiers might not realize the importance of the Kunia operation, but then again, neither do many of the Kunia soldiers' families.

"One of the main challenges of this job is that you can't tell your families what you're doing most of the time," said Sgt. Paul Recanzone, a computer programmer and analyst. "Even though I'm not the guy putting the pins on the boards, I've learned that, working here, you have to shut off a part of your life and not take it home with you."

So while they can't share many of their day-to-day triumphs, most Kunia soldiers say their greatest satisfaction comes from having an important, real-life mission.

"Some other MOSs do nothing but train all the time," said McConnell. "Not us. We do our real mission every day." And it's a mission, added PFC Rex Hartland, that "makes you feel like you're really doing something."

"What we do here makes a difference," Wolff said. "Knowing that we're doing our jobs well should make a lot of people sleep better at night."