Young Samoans have little choice but to enlist
By Kirsten Scharnberg
By Kirsten Scharnberg
LEONE, American Samoa — In a village on this beautiful South Pacific island, the Junior ROTC instructor asks his cadets to step forward if they have decided what to do after graduating from high school in the spring.
Of 12 seniors, half march ahead to say they already have committed to a branch of the U.S. military. Three more indicate they are considering it. The last three say they're interested, but have failed the entry tests.
Emosi Time explains his decision to join the Army Reserves: He hopes it will help his family financially, covering part of his college tuition. And few other job opportunities exist on this impoverished U.S. territory.
Then, the 17-year-old concedes other motivations: Each of his four older siblings has been in the U.S. military. A sister was in the Air Force. Two brothers are on their second tours of Iraq.
And his sister, Sgt. Tina Time, died there in December 2004. At the age of 22, she became part of a grim statistic: Per capita, American Samoans die in Iraq and Afghanistan at a higher rate than citizens from anywhere else in the U.S. or its territories.
Despite that, American Samoans sign up for military service at a pace exceeding even recruiters' high expectations.
With their youthful faces and hand-me-down uniforms, Emosi Time and the other eager recruits of Leone High School personify the relationship between the U.S. and its South Pacific territory. Theirs is a union that has long been defined by American Samoa's geographic and military worth to the U.S. and the island's deep financial dependence on the American government.
From its earliest days, American Samoa's primary value to the U.S. has been its deep-water port, its ideal location as a strategic foothold in the South Pacific — and its seemingly endless crop of military recruits, proud Polynesian warriors first trained by American Marines in anticipation of World War II.
Over the decades, the number of Samoans willing to serve has only increased.
For years, the decision came with little downside. Now that choice carries grave risks. Those who join the armed forces today are almost certain to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 3,500 Americans have lost their lives.
The death rate for U.S. residents serving in those conflicts is about 1 per 85,000 residents. Yet nine American Samoans already have died there — a rate of 1 in every 6,422 residents of the islands, according to a review of casualty and other records.
Those wartime losses are obvious on the island: In keeping with local custom, most have been returned to be buried in the front yard of their family home, their graves flanked by the flags of both the United States and American Samoa.
Still, the potentially heavy price of enlisting has not deterred young Samoans. There is virtually no anti-war movement in American Samoa, a small group of islands whose population of nearly 58,000 lives almost entirely on Tutuila. And American Samoa is one of the few places in the nation where military recruiters not only meet their enlistment quotas but soundly exceed them. The recruiters are aided by the fact that the military routinely grants exemptions for American Samoans who wish to enlist but fail to meet academic requirements.
Inside the Time home, it is apparent how much the military has shaped this family, and so many on Tutuila island like it. Virtually every inch of wall space is proudly covered with photographs of the children in uniform, framed military awards and medals, and American flags. But most striking is the porch that the home opens onto: Directly in the center of it sits Tina Time's elaborate marble crypt.
Emosi Time, the only one of the family's children still living at home, has watched his parents suffer over his sister's death since the day somber uniformed officers showed up at their home, prompting his mother to begin sobbing: "I don't know which child you're coming about; I have four who are serving."
Yet the teenager never has wavered in his decision to follow his siblings into the services. Some days it seems as though he has been groomed for the military since he was born. Some mornings, when he leaves for school and walks past Tina's grave in his crisp ROTC uniform, he imagines how proud his older sister would be.
"Not everyone can understand why someone like me would still want to enlist," Emosi Time said. "She would."
In a nondescript office building in Pago Pago, the capital, Sgt. 1st Class Levi Suiaunoa finds himself in a curious position as an Army recruiter during this time of war: For fiscal year 2006, he surpassed his recruiting quota, making him a standout in an Army that has struggled to meet its recruiting goals.
Drawing from a small population, Suiaunoa's recruiting quotas seem daunting: 113 recruits per year, half going to the active-duty Army, half into the Army Reserves. Yet even as the death toll has risen in Iraq, last year he signed 128 recruits.
Suiaunoa gets a lot of worried e-mails from recruiter friends on the Mainland who have failed to meet their quotas. But Suiaunoa's sleepless nights stem from a different anxiety: He is signing up distant cousins, people he knows from high school, the children of families with whom he attends church. Suiaunoa, like the island itself, is constantly steeling for the announcement that another Samoan has died in Iraq.
"Within the military, people recognize the high casualty rates among Samoans," said Iuniasolua Savusa, the command sergeant major of U.S. Army Europe and the Army's highest-ranking Samoan enlisted man. "On the island, they obviously are well aware of it. But I'm not sure that the general public has any idea of what has been sacrificed there."
Suiaunoa's and the Army's recruiting quotas on American Samoa have become so well known that the other branches of service are taking notice. The Marines recently stationed a full-time recruiter on the island, and the Air Force and Navy are in the process of doing the same.
Yet Suiaunoa's job is not as easy as some of his peers on the Mainland might imagine. Four times a year he has to deal with the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, the test the Army uses to determine whether applicants are qualified for the services and for which jobs they are best suited. Every time the test is administered, hundreds show up to take it.
Routinely, well more than half fail to score 31, the minimum required to enlist.
The military makes allowances for those who score below 31 on ASVAB but are otherwise good candidates — particularly in American Samoa.
Most recruiting offices nationwide are allowed to grant ASVAB exemptions to about 4 percent of their enlistees. In American Samoa during fiscal 2006, some 38 percent of those who enlisted for active duty had scored below 31, as did 32 percent of those who enlisted for the Reserves.
Language has something to do with it. In American Samoa, most people speak Samoan the majority of time; the ASVAB takers struggle to comprehend the test, administered only in English.
Poverty and poor schools also contribute. Almost half of teachers in the public schools do not have four-year college degrees. Federal education statistics show that a majority of students in American Samoa perform below federal education standards.
Unlike Guam, the United States' other Pacific territory where billions of dollars are being poured into the economy, infrastructure and education system as the U.S. military increases its troop presence, American Samoa has little practical evidence that any real changes are coming anytime soon.
The military provides Samoans with steady work and the promise of a pension, but those who return to the islands in need of healthcare often find services lacking.
Because there is no veterans hospital there, vets receive all treatment at Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center, a federally subsidized hospital with a long history of problems. It remains in such financial straits that it routinely cannot stock its pharmacy or purchase the chemicals needed for X-rays.
VETS FLY TO HAWAI'I
A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic, to be staffed by two full-time doctors, is finally set to open in American Samoa this year, but vets still will have to fly more than 2,500 miles to Hawai'i for any non-routine treatment.
"It's embarrassing how little is being done for the Samoans," said Johnny Mapu, the outreach coordinator for the VA in American Samoa and himself a Samoan who once served in the military. "So many people here are entitled to a laundry list of benefits ... but they haven't received it because it's not available here. It's the general principle of 'out of sight, out of mind.'"
About 40 soldiers from an American Samoa Army Reserve unit, however, are being sent to an inpatient facility in Hawai'i for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. The unit showed a higher rate of PTSD than many units in the U.S. Mapu's hypothesis is that the soldiers — neighbors, cousins, old high school classmates — are closer than soldiers in other units and thus more traumatized by seeing each other in danger, injured or killed.
Ironically, it has been in death that Samoans finally receive benefits that equal those of their Mainland military counterparts.
In 2005, the Pentagon announced changes in death benefits for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan that meant dependents would be paid $500,000 in the event of their death.
Up a winding hill on the outskirts of Pago Pago, the widow of Staff Sgt. Frank Tiai, an American Samoan police officer who joined the Army Reserves to supplement his paltry income, sits at a computer in a newly built home office. The window above her monitor overlooks her husband's grave. Talosaga Tiai used the military death benefit from her husband, who was killed in Iraq on July 17, 2005, to start a rental car company she hopes will provide for the couple's two children far into the future.
She now has a fleet of shiny vehicles and a steadily expanding profit margin for her company, Toa Samoa, which translates to Hero of Samoa. She has money set aside for her children's college education.
But her 20-year-old son, who flew to Hawai'i to accompany his father's body on its final trip home, has announced other plans: He may enlist in the Marines.