Images by John Hook, Kyle Kosaki, and courtesy of Tom Raffipiy

Tom Raffipiy looked out the window of the plane, nervous. He was 30,000 feet in the air, flying over the rugged, desolate landscape of the Western United States. The Satawal native had never seen a landmass so large, and it was unsettling to him the way the ground stretched to the horizon in every direction. “I’d always traveled across ocean,” says Raffipiy, who was 20 years old at the time. “I was nervous because I know that if we fall down, I don’t have a chance. If we fall down in the ocean, it can take the impact.” Every so often, he would check the view. Still no water. The continent seemed endless.

Raffipiy, now 52, was a newly enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army on his way to Fort Leonard Wood in rural Missouri. Up to that point, Raffipiy had spent most of his life on a tiny, boomerang-shaped island called Satawal that is part of the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM. Like many Pacific Islanders, Raffipiy grew up close to the land and closer to the water, fishing and sailing traditional outrigger canoes, which by age 9, he also knew how to build. As a boy, he spent portions of nearly every day with Mau Piailug, the famed navigator who is credited with helping revive Polynesian voyaging worldwide.

In 1985, Raffipiy left Satawal to attend the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Flying into Honolulu at night, Raffipiy wondered if he had made the right choice. The city was enormous, glowing like a million embers. When he arrived in Hilo, however, he found the pace of life familiar. What he was unprepared for was how expensive things were. Even with financial aid and a part-time job, Raffipiy couldn’t afford tuition, rent, and groceries. After one semester, Raffipiy realized he needed to change course. Although Raffipiy wasn’t a U.S. citizen, because of an agreement called the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, he was allowed to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. He called the local recruiting office.

Today, the geographic area of Oceania in the Pacific is broken up into four major regions: Polynesia (which includes Hawai‘i), Australasia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Micronesia stretches from Kiribati, 1,840 miles south of Hawai‘i, all the way to west Palau, just a few hundred miles from the Philippines, and includes the FSM as well as the Marshall Islands, Nauru and the U.S. territories of Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Altogether, Micronesia covers an area roughly the size of Australia. Although the world has chosen to group them, not all islanders from Micronesia consider themselves “Micronesian.” Many of the islands are culturally distinct, with their own languages and customs. However, citizens of the FSM, Palau, and the Marshall Islands are linked in one important way: COFA.

To understand the far-reaching effects that COFA continues to have, you have to first understand the history of Micronesia. Because of their location, the Micronesian islands have been places of strategic interest for foreign powers over the decades, including the United States, which oversaw much of the region as a United Nations Trust Territory from 1945 through the mid-1980s, when the FSM and the Marshall Islands voted to become sovereign nations. (Palau became independent shortly thereafter.) Treaties were negotiated with each of the fledgling republics, and in return for permission to maintain military operations there, the United States promised economic assistance and free entry into the country. With the signing of the compacts, COFA citizens were permitted to live and work in the United States without a visa.

Today, nearly 50,000 people from the FSM alone have emigrated to the United States, representing a third of the Micronesian country’s total population. Hawai‘i in particular has become a landing pad for COFA migrants, due to its proximity and cultural similarities to Micronesia. According to Census data, between 20,000 and 30,000 Micronesians live in Hawai‘i.

There is one other area of American society in which islanders from Micronesia are highly visible: the U.S. military. According to the U.S. State Department, citizens of the FSM enlist at double the per capita rate of U.S. citizens, and the figure is likely similar for citizens of Palau and the Marshall Islands. A 2005 article published in USA Today described the Micronesian islands as a “recruiter’s paradise.” One recruiter glibly told The New York Times, “You can’t beat recruiting here in the Marianas, in Micronesia. In the States, they are really hurting. But over here, I can afford go play golf every other day.”

Some islanders believe the region is being unfairly preyed upon and have urged their community’s young people to consider alternatives to military service, even organizing “anti-recruiting” sessions at local high schools. Political and religious leaders have weighed in over the years, arguing that as independent nations they shouldn’t be fighting America’s wars. Others have said war itself goes against Micronesian values.

Such sentiments haven’t stopped individuals like Raffipiy from enlisting. Shortly after he called the recruiting office in Hilo, Raffipiy found himself in Missouri, 8,000 miles from home, adjusting to his first Midwestern winter. At Fort Leonard Wood, Raffipiy began basic training. To his surprise, it was relatively easy. The push-ups, the sit-ups, the early morning runs—none of it was more demanding than life back on Satawal. “A lot of mainland kids were crying, but for me, I’d already lived through that. Running was something we always did on the beach. It’s a lot harder to run in the sand than on the road,” he says. When training exercises required that soldiers stay up nearly all night, Raffipiy was used to that too, having done so while voyaging to other islands. He discovered that despite having grown up on an island less than one-tenth the size of the base, he knew a lot about the world. Eventually, he began to think of basic training as a game—a game at which he realized he could excel.

A lot of people assume that islanders like Raffipiy enlist in the military purely for financial reasons. It certainly is a factor. For Raffipiy, Hawai‘i was prohibitively expensive. But things were even more bleak back home. Places like the FSM have found themselves navigating the tenuous transition from subsistence fishing and small-scale farming to a more Westernized way of life. Jobs are scarce. Those that do exist don’t pay well. A teacher on Kosrae, for instance, might make as little as $7,000 per year. By comparison, the Army offers a starting salary of nearly $20,000 plus allowances for cost of living, signing bonuses, and benefits.

But Raffipiy also exhibits a palpable sense of patriotism when he speaks. It is clear that he believes in values like democracy and freedom, and that he is willing to risk his life for them. He is not alone. Owen Milne grew up on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. He joined the Army after quitting several entry-level jobs in Tampa, Florida, where he was living with his sister. For Milne, the Army represented a path to financial independence, but also, he hoped, a job more exciting than bagging groceries. After basic training, Milne was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, learned how to jump out of helicopters, and got a job in logistics, ensuring that his unit’s supplies made it to the right place at the right time. He did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and is now stationed in Hawai‘i. Along the way, he met his wife, Regina, who is also Marshallese and spent six years working in Army intelligence.

Milne says he doesn’t feel any sort of cognitive dissonance fighting for the United States even though he is not an American citizen. “We’re not fighting just for the United States,” he says. “The Marshall Islands don’t have an army. We’re the army. So I don’t care what anybody says, we’re fighting for the Marshall Islands, we’re fighting for the United States, and we’re fighting for every ally of the United States.”

In one sense, the patriotism is befuddling since for years the Marshall Islands served as America’s nuclear testing ground. From 1946 to 1958, the United States detonated more than 60 atomic bombs off Bikini Atoll, destroying the island’s ecosystems and exposing thousands of islanders to radioactive fallout, a horrifying event that resulted in the deaths of some islanders, a plague of stillborn babies, and adverse health effects that continue today. In another sense, however, military service is simpatico with Micronesian culture, says Josie Howard, director of the Hawai‘i-based nonprofit organization We Are Oceania and a native of Onoun in Chuuk, part of the FSM. Many islanders volunteer “because it’s a service to humanity,” she says.

And yet Micronesians who serve are hamstrung in an important way: Because they are not U.S. citizens, they cannot become commissioned officers, which limits what they can make in terms of salary and the level of recognition they can receive. In the Army, the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve is sergeant major, or E-9. If they have served for more than 20 years, they can expect a salary of a little more than $70,000 a year. A commissioned officer such as a colonel, however, can easily make six figures. No matter how hard they work, Micronesians in uniform will forever be excluded from the more prestigious rungs of the military ladder.

In March 2004, Raffipiy got on a plane bound for Baghdad. The United States had invaded Iraq one year before, and Raffipiy’s unit was there to help rebuild cities that had been torn apart in the conflict. Raffipiy was in charge. He’d made first sergeant, E-8, the second-highest rank an enlisted soldier can attain, and had command over an engineering unit of about 40 soldiers. They were stationed in Tahrir, near the epicenter of the Iraqi insurgency.

Raffipiy spent 18 months in Baghdad. If Missouri had felt like a foreign country, Iraq was another planet. The temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind only made it seem hotter. Then there was the war. A combat zone can be a terrifying and traumatic place for any soldier, but for Micronesians in the military, deployment can be especially isolating. They find themselves far outnumbered by Americans from places like Mississippi and Ohio, creating an environment in which the islanders can feel culturally adrift—islands themselves in a sea of people who look, talk, and think differently than they do.

It’s not surprising then that some soldiers make efforts to remind themselves what life is like on the islands, to make places like Iraq and Afghanistan feel a tiny bit like home. Among the belongings Raffipiy carried with him to Iraq was his tiu, a traditional garment similar to the Hawaiian malo. Occasionally, when he wasn’t on duty, Raffipiy would walk around base wearing nothing more than his tiu and slippers. “I never attempted to minimize my culture,” Raffipiy says. “I always tried to share my culture with other people.”

Singing traditional songs and dancing traditional dances served as reminders of home as well as beacons for other islanders. Pius Taiwerpiy, a native of Kosrae, was one of four Micronesians in Raffipiy’s unit. One day in Kuwait, while en route to Iraq, Taiwerpiy was in a meal line talking with some of his fellow islanders in his native language (a dialect similar to Woleaian, he says) when a friend from back home appeared out of nowhere. They greeted each other enthusiastically. The friend says he’d heard them from the back of the line. “‘I was wondering who was talking in our language out here in the desert,’” he told Taiwerpiy.

This scene occurs with some frequency. Soldiers describe running into friends, cousins, uncles, or neighbors that they hadn’t seen in years. They also speak of a larger family. The islands of the Pacific Ocean are rife with age-old rivalries, such as between the Marshallese and the Chamorro people of Guam, or between Samoans and Micronesians. But in the military, these feuds dissolved. “Being in an environment like that, you’re away from family. The closest family you got is other islanders,” Milne says.

As one might expect, this multicultural tribe often forms over food, at potlucks overflowing with traditional island dishes. During the two years he was stationed in Italy, Milne spent his free time with a pan-Pacific group that included Hawaiians, Samoans, Chuukese, and Chamorros. They would work out at the gym together or organize volleyball games. Barbecues were a regular occurrence. “We tried to make it as close to home as possible,” Milne says.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, however, a lot of Micronesian foods were unavailable. Occasionally, when Raffipiy would send soldiers back to Hawai‘i for rest and recuperation, his wife would give them poi to ferry back to the battlefield, but for the most part, soldiers were limited to what was being served in the mess hall. The islanders craved fresh fish, rice, taro. For some, this only deepened their sense of isolation.

One day, Raffipiy discovered that the family of one of his soldiers had been sending her rice in the mail, postmarking 20-pound bags from Hilo to Iraq. “It cost 98 dollars for postage,” Raffipiy says. “And she wasn’t the only one. Five out of 40 soldiers were asking for rice. And families were actually spending a hundred bucks to send rice to Iraq. I thought that was criminal.”

Raffipiy went to the commander in charge of the post exchange, a store on base that carried everything from food to clothes to cologne. Raffipiy told the commander he needed rice in bulk, as well as mackerel, Spam, corned beef, and sardines. “He said, ‘OK, just give me the list.’ I wrote everything down, and he said, ‘I don’t know where I can get all this from, but I’ll send it to headquarters.’”

Two weeks went by. Then Raffipiy got a call from the exchange. “First Sergeant, you need to come down here,” the commander said. When Raffipiy arrived, he found a mountain of food, everything he had asked for, including two pallets of Calrose rice, each weighing nearly a ton. Raffipiy and several others loaded the food onto trucks, and drove it up to where Raffipiy’s unit was stationed. He got on the radio and said if anyone wanted rice or fish, he had them right in front. The cost of a 20-pound bag of rice was 97 cents. Word spread to other units, but by the time those soldiers arrived, the food was gone. Raffipiy went back to the exchange and asked for the order to be doubled.

In war-torn Tahrir, these foods were a lifeline, each bite resurrecting memories of family and friends and the islands the soldiers had left behind. “It’s a big thing,” Raffipiy says of such reminders. “The least I could do is bring a sense of home to Iraq, some normality.” In 2005, Raffipiy got the order to return to Hilo. Relieving his unit was a National Guard unit from Hawai‘i. When the unit arrived in Iraq, Raffipiy introduced the commanding officer to the commander of the post exchange. He said, “You guys want rice, Spam, all that? This is the guy.”

As it does for many women and men, Raffipiy’s time in Iraq has followed him home. A knee injury in Iraq prevents him from running and doing certain physical activities; he was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And yet, as limiting as the physical and mental trauma has been, Raffipiy feels most constrained by something else: U.S. military policy. Raffipiy, today a sergeant major, hopes to retire within the year. When he does, he would like to return to Satawal. But as other Micronesian veterans have discovered, doing so can be complicated, even impossible.

Because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t have any facilities in Micronesia, veterans are forced to either travel to Hawai‘i for medical treatment—a trip that can cost as much as $1,600—or forego their healthcare benefits. “If you’re a teacher down on the islands making $7,000 a year, you can’t afford a $1,600 ticket,” says Paul Hadik, who taught high school in the FSM from 1993 to 2017 and served for years as the director of the Kosrae Department of Education. Hadik now leads the Hawai‘i-based nonprofit organization Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. Hadik adds that VA home loans are also often inaccessible to Micronesian veterans, since guaranteed lenders don’t always exist on the islands.

As a result, many former soldiers are choosing not to return home. Instead, they’re moving to Guam, the mainland United States, or Hawai‘i. A lack of access to healthcare isn’t the only reason, of course, but for veterans like Raffipiy, it’s a big one. “Why do they have to change their whole life, uproot their whole family, and relocate, just so they can get ongoing treatment?” Raffipiy asks rhetorically.

The situation is one more way in which Micronesian soldiers are disadvantaged, an afterthought in a system not designed for them. Their unique legal status enshrined in COFA not only prevents them from becoming officers but also ensures that their service never really ends. Once a Micronesian soldier retires, his or her life is still largely dictated by the policies and priorities of the military industrial complex. Worse, the situation threatens to bleed Micronesia of some of its most highly educated and skilled citizens. “We want the veterans coming home,” says Hadik, who has made day-to-day issues that Micronesians face a larger part of his nonprofit organization’s mission. He has used his position to highlight the disparity in veteran access to healthcare. Last year, Hadik flew Hawai‘i representative Ken Ito, then the chairman of the Hawai‘i State Legislature’s House Committee on Veterans, Military, and International Affairs, and Culture and the Arts, to Kosrae and Pohnpei to hear some of the veterans’ stories. Shortly after, the Hawai‘i legislature passed a resolution urging the federal government to develop programs and policies to ensure that veterans like Raffipiy have access to the care they need.

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In 2017, filmmaker Nathan Fitch, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the FSM from 2004 to 2007, released the documentary film Island Soldier, which tells the story of Army Sergeant Sapuro “Sapp” Nena, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012, and explores the plight of COFA veterans. Together, the resolution and the film are helping bring focused attention to the issue, but it remains to be seen how the governments of the United States, the FSM, the Marshall Islands, and Palau will resolve it. Possible solutions could include an increased use of telemedicine to reduce the frequency of trips to Hawai‘i, or the construction of a new VA healthcare facility somewhere in Micronesia. Hadik also hopes to lobby United Airlines, which has a monopoly on flights in the region, to offer reduced fares for veterans.

There is no universal law that gives parents the right to raise their children in the place where they were raised, but after the sacrifices Micronesians have made for the U.S. military, Raffipiy says, the least the United States can do is help its veterans return home. It’s not only a matter of treating Micronesians fairly, but also of perpetuating the culture. After all, it was Raffipiy’s childhood—the routines and rituals of island life, the respect for family and community and culture—that helped make him a good soldier, a good leader. The life he lived on Satawal prepared him for everything the world eventually threw at him.

Raffipiy’s children, who have grown up in Hilo, are members of an ever-growing diaspora. They may never call their father’s island home. But he feels strongly that Satawal is their island too. Shortly after returning from Iraq, Raffipiy took his family to Satawal for the first time. His sons were 8, 11, and 13. His daughter had just been born. They spent three months on the island, visiting family and taking part in the rituals of daily life. When it was time to leave, Raffipiy’s kids didn’t want to go. “They were crying,” he says.

That was nearly 13 years ago. Raffipiy’s sons are now grown up. The oldest followed his father into the military, and works as a missile technician on Navy submarines. Whether or not they ever return to Satawal, Raffipiy hopes that his children will remember their time there, fishing and husking coconuts, absorbing the island’s rhythms, and that just as he did in Iraq, they will carry it with them wherever they go.