IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Eager to serve in American Samoa

A tradition of civic duty, coupled with the economic incentives offered by the U.S. military, has made the U.S. territory of American Samoa a military recruiter's dream. But, as NBC News' Mark Potter reports,  that civic duty has exacted a heavy price.
/ Source: NBC News

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa – Proudly displayed throughout this lush South Pacific island are the hand-painted signs celebrating soldiers serving in Iraq, and the yellow ribbons of a "warrior nation," which has sent so many of its young men and women to fight for the U.S. military.

"There is a strong military tradition among Samoans looking at the United States really with loyalty, with a sense of duty," explained writer and poet Sia Figel. "When the United States calls upon them, they are quite prepared to answer that call."

In a time of war, this U.S. territory is a military recruiter's dream. Last year, American Samoa and other South Pacific islands supplied more than 400 recruits for the U.S. Army. 

"There's a lot more interest in the military here," says Sgt. First Class Levi Suiaunoa, an Army recruiter, who is of Samoan heritage.

At a high school near the U.S. Resesrve base, several hundred students compete in a Junior ROTC drill inspection, while Army recruiters talk with other students between classes.

In explaining the benefits of signing up, one recruiter told a small group of girls and one boy that if they joined the active military, and then wanted to go college, "The Army is willing to pay your tuition 100 percent."

Economic incentive  
Besides the island tradition of supporting the military, especially strong since World War II, there is a clear economic incentive for American Samoans to enlist.

Hidden by the staggering beauty of this island is a per capita income that is below the U.S. poverty level. Most wages are low, and there are relatively few employment options for young people.

The only big employers are tuna canneries and the government. For many residents, the military is the best — and perhaps, the only — way out.

"A lot of it's for the benefits, everything from the health benefits, to the pay to the education benefits," says Suiaunoa, the Army recruiter, explaining why so many people enlist here.

Specialist Norris Tia, an Army reservist who just returned from a year in Iraq, said he signed up for the military pay. "We use it to take care of our families, buy food, pay the electricity bill, the water bill."

Even though one member of his unit was killed in Iraq, Tia said he still believed his time in the Army had been worth it.

"I know it's important, [to] play our role as Polynesian people serving the great country that is protecting our freedom, too," he says.

Paying the heaviest price
But American Samoa has paid a heavy price. With seven Samoans killed in Iraq, it has the highest per capita death rate of any U.S. state or territory.

Among the victims was 22-year-old Tina Time, who was killed in a desert convoy accident. In the Samoan tradition, her crypt lies in front of the parents’ house, bedecked with flowers. 

Inside the house, her mother, Mary Time, has erected a memorial shrine, featuring many of Tina's glamour photographs, medals, sympathy cards, and condolence letters from President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

With three other children in the U.S. military, Mary Time still supports American involvement in Iraq — despite her daughter's death.

"She didn't die in vain. We need to complete what we started, and I'm with the president that this war is for a good cause," Time says. Looking at her daughter's photographs, and wiping her eyes, she adds, "I miss her, she was a good girl."

Parents’ concerns
Last year, with several other Samoan deaths in Iraq, and the deployment of the local reserve unit, many parents here were reluctant to allow their children to enlist, and recruiting fell dramatically — 40 percent short of Army projections.

Sophia Fiumaono, whose sister is serving in Iraq, said she once considered signing up, but after hearing her sister's stories, changed her mind.

"I'm not planning to join right now," she said, "because it's so scary, and it's dangerous over there."

Respect for tradition
Despite these concerns, however, there is no coordinated effort in American Samoa to protest the war or dissuade others from enlisting.

"There's no organized anti-war movement here, and there never will be one," says Sia Figel, the American Samoan writer.

"They're going against an entire history and a tradition of their forefathers. And they will never disrespect that memory, that history," she says.

In fact, with the recent return home of the reserve unit, and an increased effort by Army recruiters, enlistment numbers in American Samoa are back up again, according to Army officials.

"This year, we've done well. We've exceeded our goals so far," says Sgt. First Class Suiaunoa.  "It's incredible, my phone's ringing off the hook."