Where The U.S. Military Is The Family Business

Where The U.S. Military Is The Family Business
March 12th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Where The U.S. Military Is The Family Business

Where The U.S. Military Is The Family Business
Chicago Tribune
March 11, 2007
Pg. 1

Young Samoans have few choices but to serve despite risks in Iraq
By Kirsten Scharnberg, Tribune national correspondent
LEONE, American Samoa -- In a sleepy village on the western shores of this remote and beautiful island, the Junior ROTC instructor asks his young 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 stay put. They're interested in the military but have failed tests required for entry.
Emosi Time, a lanky boy in a perfectly pressed uniform, quietly explains to a visitor his decision to sign up for 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 South Pacific outpost that has been a U.S. territory for more than a century.
Then, almost as an afterthought, the 17-year-old concedes another litany of motivations: Every one of his four older siblings has been in the U.S. military. A sister recently finished her service in the Air Force. Two brothers are deployed on their second combat tours to Iraq.
And there is his sister Sgt. Tina Time. She was killed there in December 2004. In death 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 troops from anywhere else in the U.S. or its territories.
Despite that, American Samoans sign up for military service at a pace exceeding even the high expectations of military recruiters.
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 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. That trend reflects the island's predicament: Its relationship with the world's most powerful country has done little to alleviate the poverty that leaves American Samoa's young few other economic options than to ship off to boot camp.
For many years, the decision to use military service as a springboard to a more prosperous future came with little downside. Now that choice carries grave and undeniable risks. Those who join the armed forces today are almost certain to be deployed to combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, volatile nations 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 population. Yet nine American Samoans already have died there--a rate of 1 in every 6,422 residents, according to a review of military casualty and other records.
Those wartime losses are strikingly tangible 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, there is virtually no anti-war movement among American Samoa's nearly 58,000 residents. And American Samoa is one of the few places where U.S. military recruiters are not only meeting their enlistment quotas but soundly exceeding them.
The recruiters are aided by the fact that the military routinely grants exemptions for American Samoans who want to enlist but fail to meet certain academic requirements.
Inside the Time home, it is immediately apparent how much the military has shaped this family, and so many in American Samoa 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."
A recruiter's paradise
In a nondescript office building in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, 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.
He 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.
Too many such announcements already have come, and in a place so little--American Samoa covers only 77 square miles--the news ricochets heartbreakingly fast. Only two commercial flights come into the island from the U.S. each week; when word spreads that a fallen Samoan is being returned from war, thousands turn out at the airport to receive the flag-draped coffin.
"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.
March 12th, 2007  
Team Infidel
The military makes allowances for those who score below 31 on ASVAB but are otherwise good candidates for service--particularly in American Samoa.
Though most recruiting offices nationwide are allowed to grant ASVAB exemptions to about 4 percent of their enlistees, American Samoa is being allowed far greater latitude. In fiscal 2006, for example, some 38 percent of those who enlisted for active duty at the island's recruiting office had scored below 31, and about 32 percent of those who enlisted for the Reserves scored below the benchmark.
To be sure, language has something to do with it. In American Samoa, most people speak Samoan the majority of the time; the ASVAB takers struggle to read and 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. 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.
A military benefit?
The military provides Samoans with steady work and the promise of a pension, but those who return in need of health care often find services lacking.
Because there is no veterans hospital there, vets receive all treatment at the 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.
A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical 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 Hawaii 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 Hawaii 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 have received 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.
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 Hawaii to accompany his father's body on its final trip home, has announced other plans: He may enlist in the Marines.
Guns or tuna
Faded black-and-white photographs at the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office show almost the exact moment when everything changed on this island, once largely untouched by the outside world. It was 1940, and Imperial Japan had become a grave threat to the U.S. and others. Though the U.S. had claimed American Samoa as a territory for decades, it essentially had left the island alone.
But with the Japanese military looming, the deep-water port at Pago Pago became one of the U.S. Navy's most important coaling stations, one that eventually would fuel much of the Pacific Fleet during the coming war. Almost overnight, U.S. Marines--staged on the island for quick deployment in the event of war--outnumbered American Samoa's native inhabitants. Most male Samoans over the age of 14 were called to be trained for the possibility of combat and to help guard the harbor.
The military uniform brought a financial boost and great prestige, no small thing on an island where status of family affects land ownership and wealth.
When World War II began, many Samoan men were not content to stay home while the Marines with whom they had trained went off to combat. They enlisted in the U.S. military and shipped out. Today it is common to find families that have given three generations of men and women to military service, as the grandchildren of those first enlistees now serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Every family here has people in it who have served in the military dating back to those days. Every one, the whole island," said Tolani Teleso, who has been appointed as a civilian aide for American Samoa for every U.S. secretary of the Army since 1987. "It is what started it all."
Except for a fortunate few athletes who have made it in the NFL, most American Samoans looking for work have only one alternative to military service: the island's tuna canneries.
In round-the-clock shifts, some 5,000 Samoans--about one-third of the territory's entire workforce--work at the StarKist and Chicken of the Sea tuna factories, huge fenced-off complexes on the northern shore of the main island. In the heat of the tropics, the stench outside the two sprawling plants is nauseating.
The average cannery worker makes about $3.25 per hour, and the annual income of even a long-term employee can be far less than what a first-year private makes in the Army. Again and again, American Samoans who join the military say they do so to provide better lives for their children. Child advocacy groups routinely sound alarms at the fact that more than 60 percent of American Samoan children live in poverty.
In powerful contrast, military veterans return to American Samoa to live out retirements that seem almost royal compared to the day-to-day struggles of most Samoans. They drive brand-new extended-cab pickup trucks, build homes palatial by Samoan standards and provide for their families with a pension that far exceeds what many workers make after a lifetime of service in a local job.
No Army recruiting poster could ever be as effective a marketing tool.
Marching off
This spring, as the school year winds down, high school recruiter Sgt. Maj. Semo Veavea watches his seniors a little more closely. Who is ready? Who needs more guidance? He feels a deep responsibility for these young men and women who are, at least in part, joining the military because of his influence.
"Some people probably say, `Why encourage these kids to join the military today, during a time of war?'" said Veavea, who himself chose the military as a way out, serving more than 20 years in the Army before retiring to teach ROTC on the island. "But I say, `What else do they have?'"
At the Time family's home, young Emosi recently got his first official order from the military: Report for basic training in June.
He also has applied for college at the University of Hawaii. In a perfect world, he could attend school during the week and attend to his Army Reserve obligations on the weekends. In the real world, the Army very likely could deploy him before he has the chance to buy his first book.
"I'll accept any orders that come," Time said. "I see joining the military as a great opportunity for my future, but I understand that it also means I won't control that future myself for a while."
When he was done talking, Time filed back into formation with the rest of the Junior ROTC cadets. As they marched away, he was lost in the sea of uniforms.

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