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Marine fails to sneak his way back into Orem

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Former Timpanogos all-state running back Kafea Lavu Lavu may have sneaked into Baghdad as a U.S. Marine and busted into the house of Achille Lauro terrorist Abu Abbas, but he couldn't sneak into his Orem home two days early and surprise his family and friends over the weekend.

Today is the official homecoming celebration of Cpl. Lavu Lavu, the first full-blooded Tongan to invade Iraq with the U.S. military on March 18.

Today is the day he told his parents, Samuela and Nanauma of Orem he'd be home.

"It didn't work," he said.

Lavu Lavu tried to surprise them Sunday, arriving from his Iraqi assignment only to be met with banners, flags, tons of Polynesian food and a steady string of friends and relatives. Today it will all be replayed.

After dodging bullets, staring death in the face, acting as both hero and survivor, he's glad to be home.

Lavu Lavu, a 6-foot 240-pound machine gunner, played fullback at Timpview with a cousin, BYU's T.J. Sitake, before transferring to Timpanogos for his senior year. He joined the Marines after graduating in 1998, served an LDS mission to Cambodia, then was called up as a Marine one month after his church service, January 2001.

The day after St. Patrick's Day, Lavu Lavu's Fox Company 223 attached to the First Marine Expeditionary Force entered Iraq from Kuwait and sprinted through that country to Baghdad. He didn't take a shower for 36 days and battled sand, sun and bullets from enemy Baath Party henchmen.

As a former football player, his athleticism helped. He breezed through boot camp because he was in shape. He endured emotional down time because he was mentally prepared. On Monday, he ran five miles as a Marine tuneup, galloping up to the "Y" on the mountain.

You may have seen Lavu Lavu on Fox News Channel in a live report from the front lines as part of the "Saints and Sinner" platoon — a mixture of Utahns and Las Vegas Marines. In this conflict, he was certainly on varsity, required to make plays. Big ones.

Lavu Lavu refuses to describe what it felt to fire his machine gun at the enemy. "It was a job we had to do." But he has great respect for the Iraqi people and is glad the United States entered the country to help give them a better life.

Calling the country a scene right out of the "times of Jesus," he describes the people and land outside of Baghdad as right out of the Bible. "The people are beautiful but poor. They are shepherds with their sheep, farmers in their fields, women with covered heads and men with turbans and robes struggling in poverty.

"We were their best friends and we were their enemies. They are a beautiful people. They came up and fed us, offered us bread. It was strange, but our presence was needed to help them because they've lived with almost nothing in a land that had plenty."

Kafeh's real name is Sungalu, but nobody could pronounce that so they called him "S." He was there for thundering applause when Marines entered Baghdad. "It was impressive to hear our welcome, but it also gave away our position to the enemy," Lavu Lavu said.

"The nights were scary because even with night vision, we did not know friend or foe." Lavu Lavu was at the forefront of many big war stories, including a rescue mission to free trapped soldiers just outside of Nasiriyah. He was 100 meters away when Salt Lake police officer and Marine reservist James Cawley lost his life when his Humvee turned over.

"He was our platoon sergeant, a caring man who loved his family. Cawley always asked if we had mail even when he didn't. He taught us commando tactics the Marines didn't even know because he was a SWAT expert. He convinced me to become a police officer when I got out of the Marines." Lavu Lavu was part of the "Commando" force that broke into the Baghdad house of terrorist Abu Abbas, the Pakistani dissident behind the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

What did Lavu Lavu learn from war?

"That you live every day to the fullest because you never know what will happen," he said.

In Baghdad, while the mission to restore security raged on, members of Lavu Lavu's platoon entertained themselves by making a baseball field of rock bases.

They took small rocks and wrapped them with tape and used the ax handle of a breech kit for a bat, playing other platoons. "We were 8-0 before we had to go. If it weren't for sports like this, we'd have been bored to death," he said.

But one sobering incident will remain with him forever. When called upon to perform a rescue operation three days into the war, he looked around at his fellow soldiers and everyone had their eyes closed in prayer. "I thought this was it," he said.

Firing his machine gun at the enemy during a firefight, Iraqi bullets were spraying the dirt and pavement all around him. He saw some of his companions standing up with no cover and bullets were hitting all around their feet.

"I know one thing, from a spiritual point, that anyone who says there is no God, is stupid because that day I saw a miracle in that all of us were spared. None of my companions were killed and they could easily have been shot down. The bullets were hitting right in front of my face and all around me. That's all the proof I need to know. God does live and answers prayers."

Lavu Lavu is looking into playing football at a junior college in Virginia or at Southern Utah. He plans on marrying Leah Sanft on July 19 in the Mount Timpanogos Temple in American Fork. He met Leah while in boot camp in San Diego, stationed at Camp Pendleton. He won't sneak up on that assignment either.

Welcome home, Cpl. Lavu Lavu. Let the official homecoming begin.

E-MAIL: dharmon@desnews.com