On a sweltering evening, veteran John Kaiwi stands in the sand, hands on his hips, watching two young men complete a grueling set of push-ups in a tide pool.
After every sentence, question or command Kaiwi utters, the pair responds rapidly and respectfully. They display grimaces and grit while ignoring the present conditions and curious onlookers at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. Up, down, up, down goes the constant submerging of their faces and bodies in salty water.
This is just the beginning of the day’s voluntary training regime with “Coach John.”
Two to three times over the next several weeks, they’ll carry 50- to 80-pound backpacks during 5- to 10-mile marches; do 3- to 20-mile runs on various terrain; as well swim up to 2 miles in shoreline surges and tread water for one to two hours wearing their uniform and steel-toe combat boots.
There’s always the onslaught of sit-ups, push-ups, and leg raises, followed by the carrying of boulders, logs and each other. Other skills learned include basic rifle marksmanship, basic map and terrain reading, hand-to-hand combative training, obstacle course climbing, water and land survival; and night special operations and tactical training.
If all this doesn’t make one breathless, the cost will; it’s free. Kaiwi offers this program for incoming recruits wanting to prepare for their projected military schools, particularly those going into special operations. He has found most recruits have to wait about three to six months before shipping out. They often want to feel prepared or get a sense of what’s to come, which is something Kaiwi says he can do.
Kaiwi, 45, knows first-hand what it takes to succeed in a special operations career. As a former U.S. Navy combat search and rescue swimmer, he jumped out of a helicopter in 20-foot-high seas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, helped remove a SEAL team from a rain forest in Algeria, and rescued an injured sailor from the Mediterranean Sea, off Naples, Italy. He did these feats and more while serving on elite search and rescue detachments, SEAL and special operation classified missions.
His recipe for success is “spiritual, mental and physical toughness.”
“These three ingredients, if implemented correctly, are the key to successfully passing and making it through elite military school. The instructors are there to filter out the recruits that do not measure up. They are looking for quality, not quantity,” Kaiwi said. “Doing a job like this requires a special person with uncanny drive and dedication. Whether you aspire to become a Green Beret, Airborne Ranger, Force Recon Marine or search and rescue operator, the level of commitment is at the highest of standards.”
By pushing their limits now, Kaiwi said he’s giving them a valuable sneak peek into their future. While the soon-to-be rigors and hurdles faced during service will “still be at least 10 times harder,” he hopes they won’t be as “shell-shocked.”
Over the past decade, Kaiwi has trained approximately 30 young men, all of whom he said successfully made it into the military and got their wanted careers, such as Marine infantrymen, combat medics and airborne paratroopers. Some knew Kaiwi because of his role as the strength and conditioning coach at Konawaena High School and passion for wanting to help youth.
Others were children of friends or people he knew, including recruiters and veterans. His favorite former recruit, of course, is his oldest son and Makua Lani Christian School alumnus, Joshua, who is in the advanced stages of Army Special Forces Green Beret training in Fort Bragg, Calif.
“These young men are the future protectors of our country, and they are the heart, soul and reason our country remains free,” he said.
Kaiwi didn’t always train incoming recruits or would-be soldiers like his youngest son, and Konawaena High School freshman, Zachary, who dreams of flying Army Apache helicopters someday. In the beginning, Kaiwi and other special operations veterans would get together to go on extreme adventure outings in the evenings. Though he enjoyed the fellowship, Kaiwi wanted to share the knowledge ingrained in him and make an impact in his community. This program is his way of giving back. It’s also something he enjoys.
Only recently did Kaiwi feel the need to advertise his free service, after hearing of a young man who didn’t make it into the military school of his choice. He wants all of those eager to serve to know he’s around to help and support them. However because of the regime’s difficulty, Kaiwi works with no more than three recruits at a time. The training occurs mostly in the evenings at various West Hawaii sites, from mountain to sea.
“My wish for them is staying alert and staying alive,” Kaiwi said. “I need to instill in them that this in not a video game that you can replay or reset over and over again. It is real life, and if you are not at your best, you could be faced with extreme hardcore real-life consequences — God forbid.”
Kaiwi stressed going into military special operations is not for everybody and a high attrition rate exists for a reason. “It’s more than being tough. It takes pure guts and dedication. You have to want it,” he added.
Jed Martin, 21, moved from Alaska to Kona about a year ago. He joined the U.S. Air Force about three weeks ago and is training with Kaiwi while waiting for a spot in the Tactical Air Control Party to open up.
For more than a year, Martin has known he wanted to be in the military. His dad served in the Navy for nine years.
“I believe serving my country in this way is worthwhile and necessary,” he said. “I believe in the causes, particularly when it comes to protecting our way of life and interests. I also think a strong military is a backbone of our nation.”
Martin found out about Kaiwi through word-of-mouth and was impressed hearing story after story about his oldest son who’s “a total stud.” He didn’t quite know what to expect of the strict, “extreme” regime. He admitted to often having an inner monologue of “I can” and “One more minute.”
With every training session, Martin said he feels his strength and confidence growing. He’s grateful for Kaiwi providing this free service, calling his coach a great motivator and role model.
Those interested in this program can call Kaiwi at 987-2863.