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On An Island Halfway Around The World, Locals Enlist To Fight And Die For The United States
Several years ago, Nathan Fitch, a Peace Corps volunteer, was strolling along one of the beaches of Kosrae, a tiny island state encircled by the turquoise waters of the Pacific, when he met a man who introduced himself as a U.S. Army soldier. Fitch was shocked. The man wasn’t American. He was a local. And he had just returned from a tour of duty in the Middle East.
“That juxtaposition was striking,” Fitch, who is now a filmmaker and journalist living in New York, told Task & Purpose. “This person who was in paradise had come from Iraq the day before.”
Kosrae is one of four states that make up the Federated States of Micronesia, or the FSM, a tropic nation of more than 600 islands in the Western Pacific. It is one of the most remote regions on Earth, a popular destination among adventurers drawn by its pristine coral reefs and lush, untouched landscapes. But that’s not all that brings foreigners here. It is also the people — specifically, the young men and women who struggle to make a living in a place caught between the present and the past.
An aerial view in Micronesia, a region comprised of thousands of small islands in the western Pacific.Photo by Nathan Fitch
The FSM is an independent country, but a far-reaching bilateral agreement with the United States gives Micronesians the ability to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. A remarkable number of them do — at nearly twice the rate per capita of American citizens. The inhabitants of two neighboring Pacific nations, the Marshall Islands and Palau, are also able to sign up. An Army recruiting station on nearby Guam — an unincorporated U.S. territory home to Joint Region Marianas military command and thousands of U.S. military personnel — serves all three countries.
How the far-flung region came to be a wellspring for U.S. military recruiters is the subject of Island Soldier, Fitch’s first feature-length documentary. The film takes a hard look at the reasons why islanders are signing up to fight — and in some cases die — for a country that isn’t theirs. It also explores the impact their service has on their homeland and the people they leave behind, raising serious ethical questions about offering the uniform to a population from a distant and remote land.
Island Soldier follows the stories of three soldiers from Kosrae, a 42-square-mile speck of land home to about 6,500 people. Sgt. Kilfrank Sigrah, a former elementary school teacher, is assigned to a unit at Fort Carson, Colorado, and deploys to Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Arthur Nena enlists, graduates boot camp, and finds himself stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. And then there’s Sapuro Nena, whose story is told posthumously — because he was killed in action.
Economics has a lot do with why so many islanders enlist. When Fitch started filming back in 2012, an enlisted infantryman made about $18,000 a year, roughly the same as Kosrae’s governor. For young Micronesians, a chance at that kind of money has serious pull. “You can be a high-school graduate and be suddenly vaulted into this realm where you’re on the same level as the highest paid government official on your island,” Fitch said.
Kilfrank Sigrah, a former elementary school teacher in Micronesia, stands at attention at a forward operating base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.Photo by Nathan Fitch
Deep-seated affection for the United States is another big factor. Many people on the islands still view America as the country that swooped in and liberated them from the Japanese during World War II. In fact, every year villages commemorate the liberation by holding raucous festivals. Fitch said that while filming on Kosrae he was often struck by a “palpable sense of patriotism” — not for Micronesia, but the United States.
The soldiers’ families are a centerpiece of Fitch’s documentary. It is through their lives that some of the thorniest issues behind allowing islanders to serve are exposed, like the aging father forced to shoulder the extra labor left behind by the youth who’ve enlisted, or the Gold Star mother struggling to make sense of her son’s remote death. While many Micronesians have left the islands at some point, Iraq and Afghanistan might as well be different planets.
The remoteness of the islands has practical consequences as well. With thousands of miles of ocean between them and the closest Veterans Affairs hospitals on Guam and Hawaii, island vets and their families face steep hurdles when trying to accessing the health services available to their American counterparts. Because local hospitals often lack even the most basic supplies, vets are left to raise their own funds to buy plane tickets that start at more than $2,000.
A soldier holds a folded American flag during the funeral of Sgt. Sapuro Nena in Kosrae, Micronesia.Lauren Katzenberg
“There are some benefits that are extended, but there’s a lot that aren’t,” Fitch told Task & Purpose. “If the U.S. is going to go out and recruit people from another country, from remote islands, to go fight our wars, I think we have a responsibility to help them re-acclimate.”
For the mother of Sapuro Nena, the Kosraean soldier who died in Afghanistan, the situation is more stark. “We don’t vote but we can get killed,” she says in the film. “We can serve and get killed.”
Island Soldier is currently playing at film festivals across the country and internationally, and will be distributed by Pacific Islanders in Communications for a public television broadcast.
Watch the trailer for Island Soldier below.
My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead
"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.
They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.
As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.
But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.
Sen. Rick Scott is backing a bipartisan bill that would allow service members to essentially sue the United States government for medical malpractice if they are injured in the care of military doctors.
The measure has already passed the House and it has been introduced in the Senate, where Scott says he will sign on as a co-sponsor.
"As a U.S. Senator and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, taking care of our military members, veterans and their families is my top priority," the Florida Republican said in a statement.
Little girls everywhere will soon have the chance to play with a set of classic little green Army soldiers that actually reflect the presence of women in the armed forces.
Russia established an air base in the Syrian city where withdrawing US troops were pelted with potatoes
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia landed attack helicopters and troops at a sprawling air base in northern Syria vacated by U.S. forces, the Russian Defence Ministry's Zvezda TV channel said on Friday.
On Thursday, Zvezda said Russia had set up a helicopter base at an airport in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, a move designed to increase Moscow's control over events on the ground there.
Qamishli is the same city where Syrian citizens pelted U.S. troops and armored vehicles with potatoes after President Donald Trump vowed to pull U.S. troops from Syria.