On Farthest U.S. Shores, Iraq Is a Way to a Dream
SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands - By jogging at sunset on the white sands of a palm-fringed beach here, 17-year-old Audrey O. Bricia is doing more than toning up for her next try in this island's Miss Philippines contest. She is getting in shape for United States Army boot camp.
To gain an edge on the competition for enlistment, she reserved a seat two days in advance to take Army's aptitude test on a recent Saturday morning here. Safely ensconced in her seat, she watched an Army recruiter turn away 10 latecomers, all new high school graduates.
"I am scared about Iraq, but I am going to have to give something in return for those benefits I want," said Ms. Bricia, a daughter of Filipino immigrants whose ambition is to attend nursing school in California.
From Pago Pago in American Samoa to Yap in Micronesia, 4,000 miles to the west, Army recruiters are scouring the Pacific, looking for high school graduates to enlist at a time when the Iraq war is turning off many candidates in the States.
The Army has found fertile ground in the poverty pockets of the Pacific. The per capita income is $8,000 in American Samoa, $12,500 in the Northern Marianas and $21,000 in Guam, all United States territories. In the Marshalls and Micronesia, former trust territories, per capita incomes are about $2,000.
The Army minimum signing bonus is $5,000. Starting pay for a private first class is $17,472. Education benefits can be as much as $70,000.
"You can't beat recruiting here in the Marianas, in Micronesia," said First Sgt. Olympio Magofna, who grew up on Saipan and oversees Pacific recruiting for the Army from his base in Guam. "In the states, they are really hurting," he said. "But over here, I can afford go play golf every other day."
Here, where "America starts its day," the Army recruiting station in Guam has 4 of the Army's top 12 "producers." While small in real terms, enlistments from Guam, Saipan, and American Samoa are the nation's highest per capita. Saipan, with a population of about 60,000 American citizens and green card holders, has 245 soldiers in Iraq.
[American Samoa, population of 67,000, has lost six soldiers in Iraq, most recently Staff Sgt. Frank F. Tiai of Pago Pago on July 17. Guam has lost three. Saipan has lost one.]
"I see yellow ribbons everywhere," Staff Sgt. Levi Suiaunoa said by telephone from the Army recruiting station in Pago Pago, capital of the territory. " 'Come home safely' signs almost litter the streets."
Despite the casualties, poverty and patriotism fuel enlistments.
"I buried at least one myself, but it hasn't stopped the number of recruits going in," said the Rev. J. Quinn Weitzel, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Samoa-Pago Pago. "They still feel like they want to do something special for the United States."
In Guam and Saipan, the letters U.S.A. are emblazoned on license plates, as if to educate tourists that these territories are American.
"There is a very strong sense of patriotism throughout the U.S. territories," David B. Cohen, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs, said. "How else can you explain someone like Ray Yumul, a sitting Northern Marianas congressman who has spent a year serving in Iraq? He's certainly not someone who needed the military as a ticket out."
In the Marianas, the tradition of American military service stretches back three generations, starting with the defeat of Japanese rule here in the summer of 1944.
"We support our Liberation Days, our Memorial Days, our Flag Days," said Ruth A. Coleman, military and veterans affairs director for the Northern Marianas. A retired Air Force officer, she said: "Look at me: my father, husband and I were in the service. My youngest son is an M.P. His wife is an M.P. commander. My middle son is in the Air Force."
The tie between military service and economic advancement is clear to many young people here.
"It's the benefits," said Arnold Balisalisa, who took the aptitude test here in late June. Taking a break from his $3.25-an-hour job at a McDonald's, he said: "It is better than staying on this island. There's nothing going on here. I'm 19, and I have never even been to Guam."
His friend Ms. Bricia spent a year at a high school in California, and she can see the difference.
"People in the states have the higher pay, the residency," she said, referring to residency requirements to attend a state university at lower rates. "A lot of people in Saipan are joining the Army for the higher pay, the benefits."
Clouding Saipan's economic future, Japan Airlines, the carrier for one-quarter of Saipan's tourists, is to suspend service here in October. The garment industry, the island's largest source of employment, laid off thousands of workers after the recent liberalization of American import rules for clothing made in China.
To a tourist, Saipan may look like a paradise. For a restless teenager, it may look like a dead end. On the eastern flank of Mount Tapochao, Ross Delarosa, 18, looked beyond the cows and chickens near his front yard and seethed with ambition.
"There's hardly any life this island," Mr. Delarosa said. The son of Filipino immigrants, he confronts a society where land ownership and government jobs are largely the preserves of the indigenous Chamorro and Carolinean groups. A self-taught mechanic, he said: "Here it is not what you know, but who you know."
For teenagers who think they are invincible, the brakes often come from their mothers. Ms. Bricia's mother, Mira, kept her arms crossed during most of her daughter's interview.
"I heard about that Jessica Lynch, and I thought, 'My daughter? No way!' " she said, recalling the American private who was briefly captured early in the war. In the end, she signed the Army authorization papers for her daughter, a minor.
Potential recruits say that Iraq weighs heavily in their decision.
"The scary part is, what if you go to Iraq, and someone shoots you?" Mr. Balisalisa during his break at work. But soon he was worrying about how he fared on the Army's aptitude test. Turning to Audrey Bricia, he said: "He's called you. Why hasn't he called me?"