Sixteen CNMI soldiers, including a father-and-daughter tandem, a new father, and a newly married one, are among the more than 600 members of the Guam National Guard bound for Camp Shelby in Mississippi and then to Afghanistan in the coming weeks. Together, they will be part of history as the largest group of reserve component troops to be mobilized and deployed from the Marianas.
They will be deploying with the 1-294th Infantry Regiment and F Company, 29th Brigade Support Battalion of the Guam Army National Guard.
“The 16 soldiers that you see here today are among the finest that exist in the United States Army. They are your sons, they are your daughters, they are your community members,” said U.S. Army Maj. Joseph I. Cruz, executive officer of 1-294th Infantry Regiment, during a sendoff ceremony for the 16 deploying soldiers at Fiesta Resort & Spa Saipan in Garapan on Friday morning.
U.S. Army SPC Ivan Igitol, 48, and his daughter PFC Britney Igitol, 19, may well be the first father-and-daughter team to be deployed together in CNMI history and their family and friends are strongly standing behind them.
“It’s good to know I have my dad with me,” said the daughter, who attended Kagman High School. While deployed together, they belong to separate companies.
Marie Igitol, wife and mother of the two CNMI soldiers, said her faith and prayers are helping her get through it all. The Igitol couple has five children, including the oldest, who is with the Department of Public Safety.
“The only thing I can do is put my head up high and be strong. I have to be strong for my children especially. And while they’re gone I have to do what needs to be done here, until their safe return,” Igitol told Saipan Tribune at the solemn ceremony. She and her husband have been married for 17 years but they have been together for 26 years.
Call of duty
Nineteen-year-old U.S. Army SPC Christopher Del Rosario, a guest service officer at Hyatt Regency Saipan, said he is excited to answer the call of duty but at the same time anxious to leave his young family behind.
He and his wife Svetlana have only been married for about a year. They have a 1-and-a-half-year-old son.
“It was actually my wife that inspired me to join the Army. She was supposed to go in the Army while I wanted to go to college. We found out she was pregnant that's why I decided to be the one to go in and step up as a father, I'm doing this for my son and wife and to serve my country,” Del Rosario said.
He said he will complete his degree in criminal justice and go to officer candidate school afterwards.
U.S. Army 1LT Joey Togawa, an executive officer for C Company, is no stranger to deployment but this will be his first to Afghanistan.
“I know it will be tough with my family being gone but as I have my wife's full support, I will be good. I will be okay,” he said.
He and his wife Colleen have been married for three years. They have one child, 10-month-old Gabriella.
“I am going to miss my husband of course but I can't wait to see him when he comes back,” his wife said.
Togawa always has a sense of pride of where he comes from-the CNMI and Guam. “It's something I'm going to fight for and defend,” he said. Besides his family and friends, Togawa said he would miss Chamorro food.
Besides Togawa, Del Rosario and the two Igitols, the other CNMI sons and daughters deploying are SPC Dan Angelo Bicera, SPC Josh Ejercito, SPC Ken Mojica, SPC Delorina Rabauliman, SPC Tiffany Santos, SPC Rita Taitano, PFC Hainy Borja, SPC Andrew Delos Reyes, PFC Nathaniel Mateo, PFC Andrew Reyes, PFC John Umbay and PV2 Elbert Espayos.
Mojica and Borja are from Tinian, while the rest are from Saipan.
Ejercito, the oldest of four children at 20, said he was inspired to join the Guam Army National Guard when officers visited Saipan Southern High School in late 2009. He said he looks forward to serving the nation.
He also said one of the recent military movies that inspired him was Act of Valor.
“It's very inspirational.gave me good hope and gave me courage to go on,” he added.
His father, Joey Ejercito, said he's worried and scared that his son is going to be deployed in Afghanistan but he trusts that everything will be alright and that the Guam Army National Guard will take care of him.
“I'm very proud of him,” the father, a long-term foreign worker from the Philippines, said.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, in his remarks at the ceremony, said the CNMI enjoy a proud tradition of U.S. military service.
“We have many veterans for such a small island community and we are proud of the service of our military veterans,” he said.
He said the deploying CNMI sons and daughters know that they are “respected in this community.”
“You are all important and highly valued in our community, and you will be missed. We will be waiting for you when you get back. You may always rest assured that you will always have the strong support of our CNMI community. You can see that from the support of everyone here,” the governor said.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), for his part, said the CNMI soldiers are deploying at a critical time.
“President Obama, your commander-in-chief, has announced that most U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan will transition into a support role, perhaps as early as this spring. It is time for America to reduce our involvement in this longest war in our nation's history. Do not be mistaken, however. Even as this transition occurs, you will still be in a war zone. Your enemies will make no distinction between your role on the frontline or as support. Remain vigilant. Return home safely. We shall be waiting,” he said.
Sablan was a member of a congressional delegation to Afghanistan in 2009 and he met troops from the CNMI during that visit to assess the situation. He said if and when he is able, he will visit the deploying troops in the theater.
“If it can be arranged, I owe you that,” he added.
Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos, Senate President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian), House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero, Chief Justice Alexandro Castro, other government officials, families, friends and employers were also present.
Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Guam-CNMI Committee state chair David Sablan led the presentation of “My Boss is a Patriot Award” to employers of soldiers deploying, for their “outstanding support and patronage.”
They included IT&E's Fedora Camacho, Joeten Superstore's James Sablan, Hyatt Regency Saipan's Robin Eugenio, Pacific Islands Club's Steve Balakrishna, Rome Research Corp.'s Eddie Williams, U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rene Mascalino, Delta Management Corp.'s James Arenovski, and Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. chief executive officer Juan N. Babauta.
The battalion is set to depart Guam for Camp Shelby, Mississipi, their mobilization training site in early March. They will train there for about two months before proceeding to Afghanistan to conduct their mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
'How you can help'
Guam National Guard Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Benny Paulino, said there are many ways the community can help the deploying soldiers and their families.
He said he plans to meet with the family members frequently throughout the deployment period, so he would need an appropriate facility for this gathering.
Paulino said the soldiers and their families will have an opportunity to communicate at the very least through email, Skype, or social media, which requires the use of computers.
“So the families may need access to computers, Internet and Wi-Fi connections so they can keep in touch with their loved ones. This is something that the public and private sector here in the Commonwealth can offer and support our deploying soldiers,” he said.
He said the care packages from the islands will also serve as “treats and an oasis to the harsh environment they will be operating under.”
One of the biggest issues confronting returning soldiers is unemployment when they return from their tour of duty, which is a nationwide concern.
“In fact, soldiers returning from deployment have a much higher unemployment rate as compared to the rest of the nation. So next year, around the March timeframe, when these soldiers return they would need your help to find meaningful employment. Know that these soldiers who will return as veterans are a disciplined, physically fit, drug-free, and trainable workforce with a conscientious work ethic. They are dependable, reliable.” he said.
Just like the rest of the speakers that day, Paulino said “at the very least, please remember our soldiers and their families in your daily prayers.”
The delegate, for his part, told the soldiers: “Write your proud chapter in the military history of our nation and the Northern Mariana Islands. We recognize the tough road that lies ahead for each of you, your families, and your loved ones. We pray that God will keep you safe and return you home to loving arms, when your work is done.”