Desert Islanders

Ben Bohane embeds with Pacific island troops in Afghanistan

‘There we go, island sounds and a smokin’ barbeque” says Sgt. Eddy Siguenza as we draw closer to a bunch of heavily tattooed islanders prepping food as electro soul pulses from an ipod. This could be just another cruisy Pacific island scene – except we are in a desert, far away, in a war zone that continues to take island lives: Afghanistan.

Camp Blackhorse, on the edge of Kabul, is where Sgt Siguenza and I have come in after a morning mission with some of his Guam Battalion troops, deployed as “guardian angels” for US contractors inspecting armoured vehicles to be handed over soon to the Afghan National Army (ANA). It is one of their regular missions here to provide escort and protection to a range of civilian and military contractors working with local Afghans, and to stop any ‘green on blue’ attacks between Afghans and ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces).  They will hover quietly behind the scenes, arms at the ready, always watching.

We ‘downgrade’ in the midday heat; peeling off helmets and body armour and reach for cold water in this place filled with endless dust. Someone appears with a plate and a cheer goes up – fried fish with ‘special hot sauce’ from Guam lands on the table.

‘Trust us islanders to come up with fish here in a landlocked country,’ smiles Sgt Siguenza and we dig in before our MRAP armoured vehicle collects us for the return drive back to base at Camp Phoenix…

With little recognition, thousands of Pacific islanders have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as soldiers and contractors since 2001. It is dangerous work – dozens have been killed, hundreds wounded and some are returning home with mental health issues.

Micronesians reputedly have both the highest military participation rate and the highest casualty rate per capita of any ethnic group in the US. Guam’s casualty rate, for instance, is 450% higher than the national average.

Why are they so vulnerable? Why are they serving there? How are these wars affecting faraway Pacific island communities? These are some of the questions that prompted me to spend a month in Afghanistan in late 2013 as many Pacific island soldiers were in their final months of deployment. The environment they operate in couldn’t be more different physically, or culturally, from their home.

Embedded mainly with Guam Battalion operating around Kabul and Kandahar, I also spent time with Pacific island troops serving with Australian, British, New Zealand and French forces in Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand provinces. Where US forces have mostly Micronesian and some Polynesian troops (from Hawaii and American Samoa), I also found Tahitians with the French, Papua New Guineans and Solomon Islanders with the Australians, Fijians and Tongans with the British and Maoris with the New Zealanders.

This feature encompasses the whole Pacific: Melanesians, Polynesians, Micronesians and Aboriginal Australians in Afghanistan, although much of the focus is on the Micronesians in Guam Battalion. All brought a sense of their island identity with them and I found a protective aura in their strong sense of community and comraderie.

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