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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 3, 2007

Tonga troops prepare for Iraq duty

By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. Far from their South Pacific island homeland, members of the Tonga Defense Services are training here for hazardous duty in Iraq.

Long days are spent in exercises designed to help them in the uncertain days ahead. There's live-fire weapons training. Hand-to-hand combat. Singing.

Yes, singing. But more on that in a bit.

Soon the 55 Tongans will deploy to the Middle East to assume security duties at Camp Victory, near the Baghdad airport.

To the Tongans will go the responsibility of guarding the Multinational Coalition Force command center at Al Faw Palace, an inviting target for insurgents, as well as the rest of the sprawling base.

Tongan Capt. Tau Aholelei said his troops are eager to reach Iraq.

"We're aware of the risks," he said. "The harder we train, the smoother it will work out when we get there." Aholelei translated for his troops, most of whom are not fluent in English.

In keeping with their cultural tradition, the Tongans enjoy singing and have a variety of war chants and love songs. Their days begin with prayer and end with song.

Last Tuesday, in the middle of a vigorous morning of bone-crunching martial-arts training, the Tongans broke into song, including a fight song that dates to World War II and beyond.

A rough translation from Tongan includes the refrain:

Although we go through the hardship of training

Even though we must take cover from the rain

We can stand and fight for anything.

The Marines burst into applause at the end.

Tonga has a relationship with the U.S. 1st Marine Division that stretches to World War II and the battle at Guadalcanal, where Tongans fought beside the Marines against the Japanese. In late 2004, Tongans provided security at Camp Blue Diamond, division headquarters in Ramadi, Iraq.

When insurgents managed to land crude missiles inside the Blue Diamond grounds, the Tongans broke into a war dance to show that they were not afraid.

"Definitely, having a warrior background helps a lot," said Marine Sgt. George Moleni, 28.

Moleni, a champion arm-wrestler, was born in Tonga, came to Hawai'i as part of a Mormon mission as a teenager, and ended up enlisting in 2000. He's the Marines' liaison to the Tongans and will join them in Iraq.

Older than the average U.S. Marine, who tends to be in their early 20s, the Tongans come from a variety of Defense Services units, including Royal Tongan Marines and Tongan Royal Guards.

The Tongans are trained in Korean and Chinese martial arts and the use of the M-16, the same weapon used by Marines. Given their country's economic problems, weapons training is restricted.

At Camp Pendleton, the 55 were able to fire 34,000 rounds in two days. "They love shooting," Moleni said.

A constitutional monarchy, Tonga is roughly midway between Australia and Tahiti, has a population of about 110,000 and a military numbering about 450 troops. The United States is paying much of the expense of sending, equipping and maintaining Tongan troops in Iraq. In 2004, a peace group worried that sending Tongans to Iraq would make the island a target for terrorism; the government expects similar protests.

Before the singing, the Tongans were being tutored in Marine tactics in how to keep an intruder from seizing your rifle.

"These guys are disciplined," said Gunnery Sgt. Dennis Kleyh. "They're up at 5 a.m., ready for anything."

The Tongans are also being trained in Arab culture, and how to spot roadside bombs.

"They're mentally focused," said Staff Sgt. Willie Favors, who was part of the Marine group that went to Tonga in June for the first phase of training.

Moleni says that like all first-time troops to Iraq, the Tongans will have to combat homesickness. An additional challenge, he said, will be the absence of the mess hall menu featuring traditional Tongan foods, such as roast pig and taro root.

One compensating factor, he said, may be the unlimited supply of ice cream that is a mess hall staple.

"They love it," he said.