Of Island Soldiers and Desert Wars

Guam Battalion headquarters staff. Camp Pheonix, Kabul, Afghanistan 2013 | Ben Bohane


The Pacific islands have also been touched by the Afghan conflict and recent crisis, writes Ben Bohane.

The sudden fall of Kabul has sent shock waves around the world, including the Pacific islands.

It marks the end of an era – America’s longest war (Australia’s too) wrapped up in a hasty and undignified exit as many of Afghanistan’s own citizens clamor to get out rather than stay under the Taliban’s harsh Islamic rule.

Some Pacific nations like Fiji have had to react quickly to get contractors out while Vanuatu is also seeking to help Afghans granted Vanuatu citizenship. Guam was suggested as a base for refugee visa processing.

More significantly, several thousand Pacific islanders also served there as soldiers or contractors, even geologists during the 20-year war.

The Pacific, particularly Micronesia, has paid a high price for its involvement. More than a dozen Micronesian soldiers were killed there, including 11 from Guam. At least 10 died from Fiji. Australia lost 41 and New Zealand 10. Dozens were badly wounded and many continue to suffer PTSD and the after-effects of war. In small island states, even one death sends a tragic, ripple effect through the whole community. Yet some Guam soldiers say they have no regrets about their involvement in the Afghan war.

My first trip to Afghanistan in 1992 had been to cover the Mujahedin takeover not long after the Russian withdrawl. For a brief moment then it looked like the war was over, yet almost immediately different Muj factions began fighting amongst themselves for control, ultimately leading to the rise of the Taliban by 1996.

Then I’d noticed when travelling through Guam during the early 2000s how flags at the international airport seemed semi-permanently at half mast, while on the airport foyer wall hung portraits of local soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eventually they ran out of wall space and had to install a video panel which flicked through the war dead on screen.

Micronesians were reputed to have both the highest casualty rate per capita of any ethnic group in the US, but also the highest recruitment rate, which seemed odd. Why were they so loyal?

I sought answers to this paradox – why did they join up in such high numbers and why were they being killed at rates 450% above the US average, something locals said had been the case since the Vietnam war.

In 2013 I returned to embed with Pacific soldiers, marveling at their professionalism and ability to adapt. Everywhere I went with buddy Sgt Ed Siguenza from Guam Battalion, the unit photographer, I found soldiers singing their “island jams”, cooking barbecues and bringing good humour to tough situations. As true islanders they even managed to source fresh fish for their desert bases – flying it in from neighboring Pakistan.

Guam Battalion’s 600 soldiers seemed happy to let me join them for a month around their Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and on operations. Throughout their years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was the only media who requested an embed with them, eventually making a documentary film called “Island Style” about the experience which screened around the Pacific.

It was hard to think of two more different cultures meeting than easy-going Pacific islanders fighting a desert war in deeply conservative Afghanistan, halfway across the world.

Along the way I found Aboriginal and Papua New Guinean soldiers serving inside Australian forces based at Tarin Kowt; Fiji soldiers with the British army in Helmand province alongside Tongan troops; and Kanak and Tahitian soldiers among French forces.

New Zealand soldiers, with many Polynesians in their ranks, had operated in the Bamiyan valley for some years, where the Taliban had blown up the giant standing Buddhas in 2001. This attempt to bury Afghanistan’s rich pre-Islamic history (Afghanistan was Buddhist for 1500 years) displayed a brutal intolerance which became a hallmark of the Taliban in the years which followed. New Zealand is also assessing what the fall of Kabul means for the Pacific.

The reasons why Micronesian soldiers had joined up was usually the same: many did it as a sacrifice for their families back home, who received health care and educational benefits, access to cheap PX stores. Some joined with a sense of duty and patriotism following the 9/11 attacks. Other soldiers spoke of their sense of adventure and being able to display their “warrior spirit”.

The reasons for their high casualty rate are less certain, but likely because they tended to be in frontline roles in infantry, transport and as “guardian angels” protecting contractors. The unit psychologist Captain Tom Babauta said it was because “our soldiers really step up. You’re not going to find them hanging at the back, you’ll find them charging out front. Unfortunately, that means higher casualties”.

I met Captain Tom Babauta when I returned to Guam in 2014 to see how the men and women from Guam Battalion were coping with mental health after returning home. Suicide rates were high but at the same time their island culture offers some resilience. Their commanding officer Colonel Mike Tougher noted they often had lower rates of PTSD compared to other American vets, because “they tend not to isolate themselves and know they are part of a tight-knit community here, which helps”.

One concern for Captain Babauta is how their local Veterans Affairs office copes with Micronesia’s returning soldiers. Guam receives the lowest funding per capita for vets in the US and these island soldiers from across Micronesia, American Samoa and Hawaii don’t always get recognition in the US for their service.

“We don’t get the proper recognition that we’re due but in some ways that’s our ‘island style’” reckons Sgt Ed Siguenza. “We just get on with it and don’t let things bother us”.

Nearly a decade on from touring with Sgt Siguenza in Afghanistan, I find he is now serving in California’s National Guard and documenting a new war – against wild fires and climate change, while geopolitical tensions creep ever-closer to their peaceful islands.

But right now, many soldiers in the north Pacific will be watching news and weighing emotions drawn from their raw experience of faraway desert wars.

Ben Bohane

 

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