Guam's Young, Steeped in History, Line Up to Enlist
U.S. Territory Pays High Cost in War Deaths
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 27, 2008; Page A15
BARRIGADA, Guam -- As a recruiter for the Guam Army National Guard, Staff Sgt. Gonzalo Fernandez has oodles of time for golf. In the past two years, he has taken 18 strokes off his handicap.
Slipping away to the links, however, has done nothing to dull his rising star at the office. Thanks to the eagerness of young Americans on this remote Pacific island to join the military, Fernandez is a two-time winner of the Guard's recruiter of the year award for a seven-state western region that includes Colorado, Utah and California.
"I'll win it again this year," said Fernandez, who also expects to have time for a lot more midweek golf. "I have a very relaxing life."
On the U.S. mainland, long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made life miserable for military recruiters. The armed forces have repeatedly missed enlistment targets, and standards have been lowered in response. More recruits with criminal records and histories of drug abuse have been allowed to enlist. And recruiters, pressured to meet quotas, have increasingly been accused of unethical and criminal misconduct.
Nothing of the sort is happening here.
Part of the reason is economic. Poverty rates and unemployment on Guam -- a U.S. territory located more than 7,500 miles west of Los Angeles -- are historically much higher than on the mainland, and wages are low. Schools are poor, and technical training is hard to find. There is not much for young people to do.
But those are not the most important reasons, according to enlistees and recruiters, families of soldiers killed in action and veterans of the Iraq war.
The key factor, they agree, is the island's unique status in American history. People here grow up with war ringing in their ears -- as described by their grandparents.
Guam, a U.S. possession since it was taken in 1898 from the Spanish, is the only American soil with a sizable population to have been occupied by a foreign military power.
During World War II, the Japanese held the island for almost three years and brutalized nearly everyone on it. They created concentration camps, forcing the indigenous Chamorro people to provide slave labor and sex.
"If there is a group of Americans who understand the price of freedom, we do," said Michael W. Cruz, lieutenant governor of Guam and a colonel in the Army National Guard.
Cruz's grandmother told him awful stories: She was held in a concentration camp. She was forced to watch as Japanese soldiers chopped off the heads of her brother and her eldest son. Her eldest daughters were forced into prostitution.
Today, Guam is a haven for Japanese tourists, who account for most of the visitors to the island and whose spending powers much of the economy. But people haven't forgotten.
"We saw war in color -- the beaches were splattered with blood," said Cruz, referring to the 1944 liberation of Guam by U.S. forces, in which 3,000 Americans and 18,000 Japanese were killed.
"When our nation calls us to serve, it is for us to answer it," Cruz said.
So military recruiters on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, also administered by the United States, have an embarrassment of riches. Standards have not been lowered. Targets are routinely exceeded. At his Army National Guard office, Fernandez meets potential recruits only if they call ahead and make an appointment.
With a population of 173,000, Guam ranked No. 1 in 2007 for recruiting success in the Army National Guard's assessment of 54 states and territories. (Maryland ranked last, the District second to last, and Virginia was 30th.)
"I have got 12 people who want to join up this month," Fernandez said. "But I can only process three of them because of lack of doctors to give them physicals. We can afford to be picky."
Roshjun Aguon, 19, plans to join the Army when he finishes his agriculture studies at the University of Guam, where he is in ROTC.
Serving in the military, he said, is in his family's blood. His father, his two uncles and most of his cousins have joined. His cousin Richard Junior D. Naputi, 24, was killed two years ago in Iraq by an improvised explosive device.
"Of course the unpopularity of this war affects us," Aguon said. "Mothers and sisters do not want to see us go off to war. But it is a tradition for my family."
And for the entire population. Liberation Day, July 21, is far and away the most important of Guam's holidays -- and is celebrated for the better part of a month, with speeches, parades and wild parties.
During the Vietnam War, at least 70 servicemen from Guam were killed, a death rate nearly three times the national average. That war was not viewed on Guam as misguided or a failure, many residents here say.
In the current wars, Micronesia is absorbing an exceptionally high death toll -- 10 from Guam, 14 from the rest of Micronesia. On a per capita basis, various parts of Micronesia have killed-in-action rates up to five times as high as on the mainland.
But that has not hurt recruiting. In fact, commanders here limit the number of war-zone duty tours for which soldiers can volunteer -- so that other soldiers can get a chance to see action, according to Lt. Col. Marvin R. Manibusan, commander of the Guam Army National Guard's recruiting and retention division.
Poster-size pictures of the dead are displayed at the international airport.
One photograph is of Army Maj. Henry San Nicolas Ofeciar, who was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan in August. He was a 37-year-old career officer and had volunteered for duty in a combat zone.
His mother is Agnes Rillera.
"The pain of his death I will take to the grave," she said. "But I respect my son's decision to serve. You tell Washington that we support what he did."
When Ofeciar's remains were flown back to Guam, hundreds of people showed up at the airport to pay their respects -- even though the coffin arrived on a flight that landed in the middle of the night, Rillera said.
The governor and lieutenant governor of Guam have gone to the airport to receive the bodies of most of the fatalities.
When a hearse carrying the coffin of a war casualty leaves the airport and travels across the island, which is about three times the size of the District of Columbia, residents here often line the streets in silence, holding up candles.
The people of Guam are very much aware of the failings of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Ofeciar's sister, Orlene Ofeciar Arriola.
"One thing about Guam, as compared to the mainland, we are not as fickle," she said. "Our loved ones made a commitment. We are not going to dishonor their service because the policy is not correct."