Micronesia’s Iraq Death Toll Rises
But More Islanders Signing Up Than Ever Before
By Giff Johnson, with reporting by Frank Rosario, Jason Aubuchon
11/1/04 Pacific Magazine
The first Palauan and Pohnpeian to be killed in Iraq died in September, a somber warning of things to come as the security situation in Iraq deteriorates with fighting, car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations escalating. Four of the five islanders from the Micronesian area who have died in Iraq were killed this year, more than a year after the war was officially declared over by the U.S.
To date, however, the war in Iraq and the five deaths have not negatively affected United States military recruitment in the islands: in fact, in Palau and the Marshall Islands, record numbers enlisted this year. In June, more than 40 signed up in Palau, while in the Marshalls, 21 took the oath to defend America in an August ceremony. While U.S. action in Iraq is the target of debate and criticism in many nations, there is almost no questioning of the U.S. military among people in the Micronesian area. In the Northern Marianas, for example, it is hard to find locals who are against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Retired Army Major Edward C. Camacho, commissioner of Public Safety in the CNMI, says “There are people joining to answer a call. This is the right thing to do because they too see for themselves that in the long run, it will allow their loved ones to enjoy the freedom, prosperity and simply happiness when this is all over. They have a sense of patriotism that most people just don’t understand.”
Still, the death of Pohnpeian Sergeant Skipper Soram on Sept. 22 has left his family struggling to understand the war, with the mixed feelings of pride for their son coupled with the desire for peace in Iraq. “They have a sense of patriotism that most people just don’t understand.” -Retired Army Major Edward C. Camacho
The death count can be expected to rise with more Micronesians heading off to the battlefront. The Saipan Veterans Affairs Office estimates that about 600 Northern Marianas residents are in active military duty, with fewer than 100 currently in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that number will double shortly, as more than 80 Army reservists from the CNMI left recently for training in Hawaii and Texas before their deployment in February. The U.S. Embassy in Pohnpei estimates over 1,000 of the Federated States of Micronesia’s 133,000 citizens currently serve in the U.S. military, most of whom are seeking either a steady source of income or an education. The number of men and women serving in the middle east from Palau and the Marshall Islands are smaller-exact numbers could not be obtained-but no less significant given their respective populations of about 19,000 and 55,000. And 300 soldiers of the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Infantary Regiment are American Samoans.
During the Gulf War in 1991, FSM’s per capita representation ranked among the highest of all participating allied nations. The nature of a struggling, small-island economy has meant that FSM does not have jobs to offer young Micronesians like Skipper Soram, so military enlistment has become an increasingly common alternative.
Andolin Lucios, a 21-year-old Pohnpeian reservist who passed the armed services test, is currently waiting to begin active duty. “People join because the military offers a good salary, and the physical training helps to develop their appearance,” he told Pacific Magazine. “There are opportunities in the military that we don’t have at home. You get to get off the island and see the world.” Andolin says Soram’s death will primarily impact parents, who will worry about the safety of their sons and daughters. But he doesn’t think that military enrollment will decrease any time soon in FSM. “People will keep taking the test, even though their parents probably won’t want them to go,” he says.
“We see so many of our young people joining the United States military,” Palau Micronesia Air president Alan Seid said recently. “The main reason they do that is because their parents cannot afford a good college education. They do not have the funds.”
The web page that Pohnpeian Skipper Soram developed four years ago while attending the College of Micronesia contains a brief, two-paragraph autobiography: “My name is Skipper Soram and I am eighteen years old. My future goal is to become a doctor. I really want to succeed because I want to help my poor family. We don’t have jobs, so we find it hard to survive.”
While working traffic control in Iraq on Sept. 22, 23-year-old Soram was killed by a car bomb that detonated nearby. “Skipper was always a very simple person,” his uncle Casiano Soram told Pacific Magazine. “He was born at home, with a twin, and not in a hospital. When he and his brother came to me about taking the military test, I encouraged them. Skipper was able to pass the test but his twin brother did not. I told him to go.”
Like many of the Micronesians currently serving, Soram was recruited. After his first semester of college he was visited by an army recruiter who had been made aware of his military test scores. “Skipper joined the military for opportunities,” his uncle explained. “He wanted to help his country and help the U.S. On small islands like Pohnpei, opportunities are very limited.”
Palauan Marine Corporal “Jay Gee” Ngirmidol Meluat, the son of Jonathan and Belebult Meluat of Airai State and the youngest of their twelve children, died with seven other marines in a roadside bombing on Sept. 14. His sister, Georgia “Tilly” Meluat, spoke to Pacific Magazine with her father, explaining that ‘Ngirmidol’ was the name her brother was called at home. “It was the name of the uncle of my father,” she says. “‘Jay Gee’, the name he was called outside the family is after my father, Jonathan George.” She says her brother had dreamed of being a soldier since he was about four or five years old. She remembered him brandishing a piece of wood and saying, “I’m going to be a soldier someday.”
Meluat attended Airai Elementary School and his freshman year at Palau High School. He left Palau for Guam in 1995 and graduated from George Washington High School in 1999. “The whole family went to see the graduation,” his sister says. “My brother was an honor student.” Meluat was recruited by the marines shortly after graduation, passed the entrance test and headed to Camp Pendleton in California for training in 1999. “I’m proud of my baby brother,” she says. “We’re all proud of my brother,” says Meluat’s brother Metocuv Meluat, who plans to join the army after finishing his courses at Palau Community College. “He’s taken our name to higher places.”
The FSM’s first casualty has many talking about Iraq, Andolin Lucios says. “Most people don’t understand why the U.S. is in Iraq, and now lots of people think they should leave,” he says. Soram’s family is also struggling to understand the war, according to Cassiano Soram. “Our son is gone. I just keep thinking about the thousands of young men and women in Iraq, so many people dying daily. Isn’t there anything we can do? Can’t we solve these problems? Don’t we want peace?”
But for the most part, people in the islands unquestioningly line up behind the United States. Northern Marianas Representative David M. Apatang, a retired Army veteran of 20 years with two tours of duty in Vietnam, publicly called for young CNMI residents to join the military because of the numerous educational, training and other benefits. Retired as a first sergeant, Apatang supports the U.S. efforts in fighting terrorism even though his youngest daughter is in the Army currently based in Ft. Hood, Texas.
As Cassiano Soram prays for peace, Soram’s twin brother, Skipson, is now making plans to re-take the military test, with hopes of enrollment. “Skipper died for his country,” Cassiano Soram says. “We’re all proud of Skipper, and his brother wants to follow in his footsteps.”
Micronesia’s Iraq Death Toll
o Army Spc. Jude Rivera Wesley, Guam. Died December 8, 2003.
o Army 1st Lt. Michael Aguon Vega, Guam. Died March 20, 2004.
o Army Sgt. Yihjyh “Eddie” Lang Chang, Saipan/Guam, April 4, 2004
o Marine Corporal Jay Gee Ngirmidol Meluat, Palau. Died September 14, 2004
o Army Sergeant Skipper Soram, Pohnpei. Died September 22, 2004.