U.S. Army recruiters finding success in poverty pockets of the Pacific

SAIPAN, NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS — 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 U.S. Army boot camp.

To gain an edge on the competition for enlistment, she reserved a seat two days in advance to take the Army's aptitude test on a recent Saturday morning. Safely ensconced in her seat, she watched an Army recruiter turn away 10 latecomers, all recent 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 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 United 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 U.S. territories. In the Marshalls and Micronesia, former trust territories, per capita incomes are about $2,000.

The Army's 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 1st 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 four 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 U.S. citizens and green card holders, has 245 soldiers in Iraq.

American Samoa, with a 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 Bishop J. Quinn Weitzel of the Roman 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 USA are emblazoned on license plates, as if to educate tourists that these Pacific 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 after a recent visit. "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."

The governor of American Samoa, Togiola Tulafono, has a daughter serving in Iraq.

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 MP. His wife is an MP 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 Bricia spent a year at a high school in California, and she can see the difference. Here the minimum wage is $3.05, and Saipan has no four-year university.

"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."