Every July 21st, Guam celebrates Liberation Day, the American liberation of the island from the Japanese during WWII, with a huge, throw-out-all-the-stops parade. One after another, blocks-long contingents of Guamanian-American soldiers march.
Guam is a non-incorporated territory of the United States, like Puerto Rico. Although its residents can’t vote in federal elections, they can serve in the military — and they do, at rates three times the rate of any state. At least one in eight adult Guamanians is a veteran.
“Guam is very traditional when it comes to the military,” says Sergeant Gonzalo Fernandez, a recruiter for the National Guard. “In every village on Guam you’re going to find a big amount of people who served in the military. It’s a family tradition to do it.”
That tradition makes it an easy place to get people to sign up. Fernandez has won the National Guard’s “Recruiter of the Year” award three times in a row.
“I couldn’t couldn’t duplicate the success I had here anywhere else, because I’m not sure the people of those places are as patriotic as the people on this island,” says Fernandez.
Patriotism or Poverty?
At the Liberation Day parade, that patriotism is on display everywhere. Part of it may have to do with the military’s massive presence on the island. Guam is known as the “tip of the spear” in the Pacific. Thirty percent of the island is occupied by military bases.
University of Guam professor Michael Bevacqua says that he believes that beyond the façade of patriotism, something else is going on.
“Many Guamanians spend their whole life dreaming about the United States and about how cool it is and that you’re a big part of it. And then you go there and you find that people don’t know anything about you,” says Bevacqua. “I think Guam has this problem of feeling like they’re shut of of America so some people join to try and prove they are really part of the United States.”
Another major factor, Bevacqua says, is poverty. A quarter of Guam’s population is below the poverty line. For many Guamanians, the military is a way out.
“A lot of it has to do with the shininess and the niceness of the military. It seems like there’s this excess of resources,” says Bevacqua.
Whatever their reasons may be for joining the military, coming home presents soldiers with a new set of challenges.
Pacific islanders not only serve at the highest rates, they are injured and die at the highest rates too. Yet Guam ranked dead last in medical care spending per veteran by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, or the VA, in 2012.
In recent years, many servicemen and women have been returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with physical and psychological scars. Many say they have trouble obtaining the care they need.
On of them is Roland Ada, a 34 year-old who served two tours in Iraq as a combat medic. At his home in Guam, he scrolls through photos her took of carnage on the front lines.
“This is where the IED went off,” he says, pointing to a place on the screen. The scene is of a roadside bombing he witnessed in which several Iraqi men and children were killed.
“This Is My Home, I Want To Be Here”
Today Ada suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder because of experiences such as these.
“I still see those children once in a while,” says Ada. “That’s why I get drunk. So I don’t have to see them. When I get drunk it numbs everything.”
Some days, Ada feels incapable of even leaving the house. He says he has frequent thoughts of suicide. The first time was towards the end of his active service, while he was on base in Hawaii. Suddenly, while driving one night, he felt himself snap, and called his brother in a panic to talk him down.
“I was mad at the world, I was mad at everybody, I was mad at myself, and I never figured out why, really. That’s what scares me about myself. That when I get mad, those fleeting thoughts could become real,” says Ada.
Roland wants to get better. But, he says, he has been unable to find the intensive PTSD treatment he needs here in Guam. The nearest VA program offered is in Hawaii, eight hours away by plane.
“Sometimes I think about going back to the States and I would have a better opportunity and better care that I would here,” says Ada. “And it sucks because this is my home, I want to be here but I can’t get the help that I need. It’s not the help I want, it’s the help I need.”
Help On The Way?
The VA doesn’t operate a hospital in Guam. It did, however, open a new clinic for veterans in 2011.
Craig Oswlad, a VA official from Hawaii, responded to questions about Roland Ada’s claims about lack of PTSD services for veterans.
“We’re very concerned about hearing that from veterans. Over the last 20 years, we’ve been building a health care system in the Pacific to meet what we call unmet demand,” says Oswald. “All I know is that in an area like the Pacific, we’ve grown tremendously to help these people over the years. And we have future plans to go even further.”
A Problem Of Representation
Not everybody would agree with Oswald’s claims that things are getting better. Governor Eddie Calvo, the highest elected official on the island, says the U.S. Senate cut funds for mental health care for Guam two years in a row.
“Unfortunately some of the policymakers out there is Washington DC, maybe because of the distance that Guam is from the United States, have a cavalier attitude towards the citizenry out here Guam,” says Calvo.
“Of course it doesn’t help that we’re an unincorporated territory that has no vote in a Congress or a Senate and no vote for a president. It makes it that much more difficult to get our voices heard, either in Washington DC or to the American public.”
For Calvo, Guam’s lack of federal representation is the biggest hurdle in securing further resources for the island’s veterans.
Until those resources arrive, vets like Roland Ada may have to either leave the island for care of learn to get by on their own—and hope they make it out without hurting themselves or others. Ada knows his family is worried about him.
“Every night when I go out to shoot pool or when I go out to drink, I don’t want them to have to worry and think, ‘is he going to make it home tonight’,” says Ada. “The only thing that snaps me back to reality is thinking about my family.”
Photo by Paul de Lumen