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.
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."
It is thought that between 1,000 and 1,500 of the FSM's approximately 107,000 citizens are currently enlisted, with many more veterans now in the US or on one of the nation's 607 widely scattered islands.
But while some Micronesians see the US military as their ticket out, many here are poorly informed of the risks. The FSM has suffered more casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan per capita than any US state, and has lost soldiers at a rate five times the US average. Some recruits sign on unaware the US is fighting two wars.
Hideaki Charley, a high school senior planning to ship out for Army training this summer, lives in an outer municipality where newspapers and Internet access are hard to come by. He only found out that America was at war in one country, not to mention two, about a year ago – weeks after he had enlisted.
'They didn't tell me about the wars'
"The recruiters didn't tell me about the wars," says Hideaki. "They told me about the good things" such as enlistment bonuses and the chance to travel. "But I didn't ask [about war]," he adds.
US forces may also find the remote islands such fertile ground for recruitment because residents have been largely spared from the deluge of media coverage of the years-old wars. A recent study by the Heritage Foundation of US enlistment rates cites "Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander" as the most overrepresented group as of 2005, with a ratio of 7.49, or an overrepresentation of 649 percent.
With three tours of duty in Vietnam and a career with Special Forces, 1st Sgt. Frank Semens (ret.) is one Pohnpeian who does know the risks. Still, in his role as US Army recruiter here, Semens would rather not discuss with potential recruits the dangers they may face.
"I've never tried to explain the risks to [potential recruits] because I don't want to scare them," says Semens. "I tell them about the opportunities."
Semens says that most Pohnpeian parents assume their child will automatically become a sohnpei, or warrior. "Not so," he tells them. Semens stresses to recruits and their families that there are many noncombat positions available that provide training in applicable skills and trades. It's these opportunities, as well as a long military tradition that keeps Micronesians enlisting at such high rates, says Peter Prahar, US ambassador to the FSM. "If we didn't give a [recruitment] test, there would be an uproar," says Ambassador Prahar. "People want to take this test."
Haglelgam also recognizes the popularity of service. "This is a volunteer military, and people should have the right to make that choice," he says. "My hope is that they will have all the information in front of them when they make their decision."
Even when they know the risks, many still choose to serve. "I would still join. It doesn't matter," says Hideaki. For now, what he most wants to discuss is his first trip off-island this summer to Guam, for a medical checkup with the Army.