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Uncle Sam wants Micronesians for US military

US military recruiting from the Federated States of Micronesia, per capita, leads all American states. Many see an economic path out of the isolated Pacific nation, but some don't know they might fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

By Tony AziosCorrespondent / May 5, 2010

1st Sgt. Frank Semens (ret.), who helps with US Army recruitment in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, holds a portrait of his nephew, one of several family members to have served for Uncle Sam in the US armed forces.

Tony Azios

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Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia

The portraits of stern-faced young men on armed forces recruiting posters, hanging from cafeteria walls, seem to gaze down at the mingling teenagers. Below, about 130 high school seniors have gathered to sit for a US military aptitude test required by the school's administration. Several dozen plan to enlist; many more are still on the fence.

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The students are from the Western Pacific island of Pohnpei. And the scene is repeated nationwide several times each year – putting the four states that make up the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) ahead of every US state in Army recruits per capita in recent years.

Lloyd Daniel, a talkative senior with a taste for pizza and American slang, will ship out for Army training on June 29. He joined for the same reasons most kids here do: to see the world, get a steady paycheck, and pay for college. Also, Lloyd feels a sense of debt to America: "The US has been here helping out our island in many ways, so I feel that we, as Micronesians, must return the favor."

Liberated from Japanese occupation by US troops during World War II, the FSM were administered by the United States as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands from 1947 until independence in 1986, when the two countries entered into a compact of free association. The independent nations of Palau and the Marshall Islands, which also were administered by the US following World War II, negotiated separate compacts and achieved independence at different times but are also visited by US military recruiters. The compact obligates the US to defend these sovereign countries from attack, and grants their citizens permission to live and work in the US without a visa and serve in its armed forces. Non US-citizens can serve but cannot become commissioned or warrant officers.

This has been a major boon to Micronesia, located 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Its lackluster economy averages $2,200 gross domestic product per capita. With a median age of 18.9, the FSM has one of the world's youngest populations; with a 22 percent unemployment rate, however, jobs are scarce. Remittances from enlisted citizens help many families stay afloat, and the promise of education benefits, signing bonuses, and a starting salary of just under $17,000 for a private first class all serve as effective lures.

Some critics, however, see military recruiters as preying upon an impoverished population. "Economically disadvantaged families are filling the ranks of the US armed forces," says John Haglelgam, former president of the FSM. Mr. Haglelgam, who has opposed Micronesians serving in the US military, says most Micronesians share his view, but see the military as their best hope for upward mobility.

An opportunity to advance

"It's very unfortunate that families here are pinning their economic dreams and hopes on the blood of their children," says Haglelgam. "The chance for [extra income] has emboldened families to not object."

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