A Micronesian Paradise — for U.S. Military Recruiters

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Bob Krist / Corbis

Dancers from the village of Nimaar do the traditional stick dance during a cultural festival on Yap.

As the sun sets over the coconut palms and tin roof homes on the remote tropical island of Yap, Tony Untalan anxiously adjusts the radio on his windowsill. He is trying to catch the news from Afghanistan, where one of his two sons in the U.S. military is stationed. But the reception in his village is poor and on this evening, he can't hear anything through the static.

Yap is part of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), an island nation in the western Pacific Ocean that was formerly part of a U.N. trust territory administered by the U.S. after World War II. Under an agreement signed in 1986, the islands were granted independence but citizens were given the right to live and work in the U.S. and serve in its military. Initially, few enlisted. But these days, U.S. military recruiters visit local high schools annually and students sign up in droves. For FSM youths, military service means money, adventure and opportunity, a way off tiny islands with few jobs. In 2008, the country had more Army recruits per capita than any U.S. state. It also has more casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, per capita. The islands have lost nine soldiers in the wars out of a population of 107,000 — a rate five times the U.S. national average. (Only American Samoa has lost more soldiers, per capita, among U.S. territories.)

On Yap, stone discs weighing several thousand pounds are still used as a form of currency, but New York Yankees caps are sold in shops, Budweiser is the beer of choice and Obama stickers abound. "These islands have fallen in love with the United States of America," says Tony Babauta, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Areas, which oversees relations with FSM. "The American people rely on them to defend our freedom, and at times there is an ultimate sacrifice."

Untalan's village, Gitam, is home to about two dozen families and has enough enlisted residents to field its own baseball team. Several of them belong to Mark Mathow, a retired fisherman. On a recent balmy day, he sits bare-chested on his porch, recounting how his family became involved with the U.S. military. His brother Steven, a U.S. Army staff sergeant with 16 years in the service, was killed when an IED hit his unit's Humvee outside the Iraqi city of Bayji in 2005. One daughter just got out of the Army after eight years of service, while another has served two tours in Iraq and is still in the service. Of his two sons, one is presently in Iraq and one is stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. "These youngsters want to experience something different than what they've been used to," says Mathow. "They want to eat hamburgers, ride airplanes, see the rainbow."

But John Haglelgam, who served as President of FSM from 1987-1991 and is now a history professor at the College of Micronesia, says FSM soldiers are being shortchanged. They cannot become commissioned officers unless they become U.S. citizens, a step many soldiers are hesitant to take because it would mean renouncing their FSM citizenship, which, among other things, would prevent them from owning land upon returning home. And although FSM veterans receive the same benefits as their U.S. counterparts, they aren't much use to those living on isolated atolls who don't frequently go to hospitals because the trip can take several months. But the bigger concern is that young Micronesians aren't being told what military service actually entails.

"The recruiters come in here and lay honey on these kids," says Tim Bigelow, a pony-tailed Yap high school teacher originally from California who served in the military during the Vietnam War — but only after ignoring several draft letters and being faced with imprisonment. Several weeks before every recruiter visit, Bigelow holds "anti-recruiting" sessions with juniors and seniors. He distributes materials on battlefield fatalities and post-traumatic stress, as well as an article by Haglelgam arguing that military service is "completely out of place" for residents of this "serene and peaceful" nation. "These kids just want to get off the rock," says Bigelow. "And I don't like the recruiters coming in and harvesting the best kids just because they don't know how to get from here to San Francisco State University or even San Francisco Community College."

Some local leaders agree. "There are better options for our youths, but this is the quickest option, the fastest way to get out of Yap," says Larry Raigetal, who directs the island's Department of Youth and Civic Services and has two nephews and three cousins in the U.S. military, including one who was shot in the stomach in Iraq. "Yap doesn't have to fight this war," he adds.

Back in the village of Gitam, 29 year-old Salvador Pedro has just returned home after 10 years of service in the U.S. Navy, an experience that he says helped him mature. He spent much of his time as a chef aboard an aircraft carrier, specializing in garnishes and cake decorations. A job has recently opened up at a local bakery, but Pedro doesn't plan on applying. "Right now, I don't want to talk about jobs, school, nothing," said Pedro, "I just want to be home."

His first task: building a carport to shelter his newly purchased Honda Civic.