Bracing for Next Wave

Bracing for next wave

Residents of Guam nervously await a planned influx of thousands of American troops, unsure if it bodes well or ill for this tiny, strategically located U.S. territory in the Pacific

By Kirsten Scharnberg

Chicago Tribune national correspondent

June 18, 2007

AGANA, Guam
There is no better view in Guam than the one from atop the air traffic control tower at Andersen Air Force Base on this island’s northern shore. The Pacific Ocean stretches endlessly. The mountains with their lush foliage jut into the turquoise sky. When bad weather rolls in, it often can be spotted from here before anywhere else.

There is a storm, of sorts, coming to this speck of an island in the West Pacific.

Over the next decade, the Pentagon plans to shift at least 8,000 Marines here from Okinawa, Japan, boosting the permanent U.S. military presence on Guam to levels unseen since World War II.

The Air Force will expand its base by some 2,500 personnel and host a constant rotation of long-range bomber squadrons to help the U.S. deal with threats posed by a nuclear North Korea, a fast-expanding Chinese military and Islamic terrorist cells in such places as Indonesia and thePhilippines.

And the Navy will continue to add sailors and some of its most advanced weapons, including Trident missiles and nuclear submarines.

In all, a remote U.S. territory once nicknamed “Operation Sleepy Hollow” within military circles will go from hosting only a few thousand U.S. troops to having up to 20,000, earning it a couple of new nicknames: “Fortress Pacific” and “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

“I don’t think anyone can say exactly how good or bad this change will be,” said Melissa Savares, mayor of Dededo, the island village expected to be most affected by the Marine expansion. “But everyone can safely say it will be profound.”

Looking closely at the tropical vistas of Guam, an island only 30 miles long, one can already see the early signs of change and potential conflict.

Bulldozers tear through palm trees to clear previously undeveloped acres for buildings and training areas on land that families in Guam claim was unfairly seized from them by the U.S. military, which currently owns nearly one-third of the island.

And on the bluffs overlooking the island’s most beautiful stretch of shoreline, dozens of families are creating a makeshift town by occupying rows of crumbling buildings on abandoned federal property, vowing to face off against the wrecking balls if plans for a superhighway through their ancestral property go forward.

“I respect the military because they serve our country,” said Princess Rupley, 29, a mother living in condemned Federal Aviation Administration housing near the airport. “But when you come to a tiny island where land matters the way it does here, you can’t barge in and take the amount of property that the federal government has for the last 60 years here. At some point there’s got to be a backlash.”

Guam has had little say in its relationship with Washington since the island became a U.S. territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Although Guam residents are U.S. citizens, they cannot vote in presidential elections, and the island’s representative in Congress can be on committees but has no vote on the House floor.

But that may be changing.

Some of the island’s top leaders and activists recognize that there may never be a better time for Guam to bargain with the federal government than now, when the U.S. military so badly needs this little island so perfectly situated to be a key link in the United States’ modern Asia policy.

And as a result, a movement is gaining traction to demand that the people of Guam be allowed to vote on what kind of political relationship statehood, independence or territory they want to have with the U.S. in the years to come.

Century of the Pacific

This spring, Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to the Pacific to champion the United States’ global military strategy. One of his first stops was Guam, and his remarks to troops at Andersen Air Force Base hinted broadly at the growing significance of this island that sits within easy flight or sail of China, North Korea and the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, especially for oil.

“Guam is in the heart of a strategic area where the distances are great and the responsibilities are many,” Cheney said. “By positioning our forces on Guam, the United States can move quickly and effectively to protect our friends and to keep the sea lanes open to commerce and closed to terrorists. This island may be small, but it has tremendous importance.”

Even as Cheney spoke, Andersen air base was working on construction of typhoon-resistant hangars that can house up to 10 Global Hawks, the nation’s most advanced unmanned global spy planes. And across the island, at Naval Base Guam, the port is to be re-outfitted to hold new stealth combat ships that can deploy special covert forces.

Indeed, while most eyes in recent years have focused on the Middle East and demands on U.S. forces there, many military experts have predicted this to be the century of the Pacific.

American military officials hope that a significant U.S. presence in the Pacific will make Chinathink twice about attempting to push into Taiwan. The U.S. also wants to monitor what some experts have called an Asian arms race, where governments from China to Pakistan have begun building up submarine fleets, many of which have stealth capabilities advanced enough to elude U.S. radar. And routine U.S. military exercises off the coast of Guam are clearly intended as a show of force to the North Koreans.

In his recent speech, Cheney thanked the people of Guam for their support. “You’ve made us feel right at home here,” he said.

But the vice president never left the base during his brief island visit. If he had, he would have encountered several dozen protesters with posters such as “Massive military buildup catastrophic toGuam.” He would have seen that while the vast majority of residents hope the expansion will help the island, not everyone wants the military to feel welcome here.

Demanding a seat at the table

Sitting on the patio of a run-down little bar on Guam’s southern shore, Debbie Quinata shakes with rage as she talks about U.S. plans to increase troop levels here.

Others may worry about the expansion’s effect on everyday concerns such as water and sewage systems, power and traffic. They question how the already gridlocked island of about 170,000 can absorb what may amount to well over 30,000 new military residents and their dependents.

But Quinata’s concerns are broader. She fears the expanded U.S. military presence will kill any chance for a vote on political self-determination, something she and a group of activists seeking the island’s independence have been demanding for years.

“The U.S. doesn’t want to cede any control in a place where they are going to be having this many troops,” she said. Most top military officials acknowledge that the reason they want to pull troops out of Japan is to avoid having to bargain with other governments about military decisions, which is unnecessary on land controlled by the U.S.

Quinata and other activists have taken a unique approach to try to stop the expansion. They’ve begun lobbying Japan’s government to back out of its tentative deal to pay roughly 60 percent of the nearly $10 billion price tag associated with transferring Marines to Guam, a gambit that currently shows little promise because Japan is so keen to regain the land of Okinawa.

More moderate voices on the island are equally apprehensive about the expansion.

Guam legislator Judith Won Pat and other political leaders have traveled to Okinawa to attempt to understand why the Japanese government is so committed to ensuring that the Marines leave. She said the Japanese list a number of reasons, from prostitution to the rapes that U.S. Marines have committed there.

“If the Marines are going to come here, we need to go to great lengths to ensure the problems ofOkinawa are not replicated here,” Won Pat said. “The terms of engagement for this expansion have to be determined by the people of Guam. They have to at least be allowed a seat at the table, not just to have all the terms laid down for them.”

Eddie Calvo, vice speaker of the Guam Legislature, looks at the military expansion through the eyes of a seasoned politician, one who knows it’s always easiest to strike a bargain when the other party wants or, better yet, needs something from you. Calvo believes Guam has never been better positioned to push for statehood.

“In the 21st Century, Guam’s role in the world is going to be more strategic than Hawaii,” he said. “Now is the best time for us to try to negotiate.”

Though most people on Guam want the island to have a chance for self-determination and more say in its future, polls conducted by local news media also show that up to 85 percent of the island believes the U.S. military expansion has the potential to be good for Guam. But precisely how much of the military’s huge investment will spill over to the island’s general economy remains to be seen.

New military housing slated for several sites on the island will reduce the number of troops who will rent private homes. And the Guam Department of Labor has talked of granting visas to some 15,000 skilled foreign laborers, the vast majority from the Philippines, in order to staff the building boom.

This land is our land

Military officials this spring launched public meetings in which island residents voiced their concerns about the coming expansion. Predictably, much worry revolved around the commodity most cherished on an island as small as Guam: land.

In the eyes of many on Guam, the U.S. military does not have a good track record on this.

The history of the land debates on Guam dates to World War II. On the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, they easily overtook the tiny American military presence on Guam and occupied the island with brutality for two years. In 1944, the U.S. regained control of the island after a bloody battle that left Guam in shambles.

Jose and Jesus Pangelinan, whose father was executed by the Japanese for suspicions he was aiding the Americans, still weep when they remember those days. They also remember welcoming the victorious U.S. Marines with parades and hugs until their liberators came to tell them and hundreds of other families that their land was being confiscated for military use.

Some were paid pennies on the dollar for thousands of acres of oceanfront property; others signed away their titles, believing it was the least they could do for the nation that freed them from Japanese tyranny.

“It broke our hearts our spirits to leave this land,” said Jose Pangelinan, 82. “On an island this small, all you are is the land you own, the food you grow, the shoreline you fish. These are everything.”

In the 1990s, during a decade of military downsizing, the U.S. started a program to return some of that land to original owners or their descendants. Some 9,000 families, including the Pangelinans, benefited, according to program officials. But with the coming expansion, people are terrified that history is about to repeat itself.

The land returned to the Pangelinans, for example, sits adjacent to land slated to become housing for 8,000 Marines and their 9,000 dependents. The Defense Department has made no moves to acquire more land on Guam, and commanders on the ground say they doubt such action would be taken, but families who have lost property in the past still fear the worst.

“I want to believe my country will be fair to me,” Jose Pangelinan said. “I love my country. … But the last time I believed they would be fair, everything my father had ever worked for was taken away.”

His brother interrupted him.

“Whenever the U.S. troops roll in,” Jesus Pangelinan, 84, said, “you never know what else will follow.”

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