The Chamorro people of the Marianas Islands chain have been intimate companions with conflict and state-sponsored violence during World War II. Our families living in the Northern Islands at the time were loyal to the Japanese empire, while in Guam, most of our families were loyal to the American empire. All our families transformed from relatively peaceful villagers into battlefield participants of varying degrees from living through World War II because our island chain became a deadly hot war zone not of our own making.
Generations of military veterans
Today, generations of Chamorros have proudly worn or currently wear the uniforms of the U.S. military. This has resulted in several Chamorro families creating for themselves legacies of military service found in all branches of the armed forces. Chamorros fought in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere on land, air, undersea and at sea level. Our Chamorro people own the distinction of having some of the highest per capita killed-in-action rates of any population within the American empire yet remain institutionally restrained and discriminated from exercising national political rights such as voting for president, having a voting representative in Congress, and having a vote in the electoral college.
We must never forget our Vietnam veterans
This past week was Vietnam Veterans Day, a holiday established by former President Barack Obama in 2012 to recognize those who fought and died in this geopolitical imbroglio. It has been almost 50 years since this horrible conflict ended. Chamorro Vietnam veterans have yet to see a parade welcoming them back home from war. Several veterans, including ones personally known by this op-ed writer, died from complications tied to Agent Orange exposure during their time in service and/or were coping with PTSD before they passed.
The uniqueness of the Vietnam veteran of Chamorro Pacific Islander ancestry
Chamorro soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who served in Vietnam were unique in several ways.
First, this generation was one whose first language was Chamorro, not English [this fact in and of itself is worthy of a much lengthier discussion]. Many of those who served in Vietnam not only lived through the horrors of conflict in Southeast Asia, but also experienced the catastrophic effects of World War II captivity in Guam and the series of follow-on human rights injustices and environmental damage [re]introduced to our island and our ancient Pacific Islander civilization by the American military machine after Guam was retaken.
Yet, it was this generation of villagers—the Vietnam veteran generation—that in some instances expressed the desire to give back to the United States empire for recapturing Guam from the Japanese on July 21, 1944, despite America abandoning the island and Guam’s Chamorro people in 1941.
Our Chamorro veterans performed their jobs with distinction, unwavering bravery and under great uncertainty amid a national political climate that questioned the wisdom and moral correctness of America’s stated policy to “contain communism.”
As thousands of citizens throughout the American empire remained ambivalent toward the Vietnam conflict, Guam and the Chamorro people appeared less conflicted over the factors that informed American military policy, intervention, and strategy toward Southeast Asia.
Regional VA medical center needed
Those Vietnam veterans who returned home to Guam after serving on active duty never had the opportunity to take full advantage of resources provided through a regional VA medical center because one was never built on island. Now is the time to build a comprehensive VA medical center that also provides a full range of mental health services. Veterans deserve it because the existing community-based clinic system and benefits footprint is inadequate to meet all the needs of approximately 16,000 veterans.
Some people may not understand that Guam and the CNMI have disproportionate numbers of veterans as a percentage of the total island chain population. Some may not realize that suicide amongst veterans also remains a real ongoing concern—as is suicide in general—and most people are not aware that younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan may have become sick due to burn pit exposures while on deployment.
Guam and CNMI congressmen, where are you?
There are a host of national legislative opportunities to pursue to authorize, fund, and construct a regional VA medical center in the Marianas. One possibility is to see authorization language introduced in the House of Representatives that fully funds all the steps needed to identify, design, build, and operate a regional VA medical center in Guam. There may be military controlled land available to accommodate such a facility and Congress should be driving this effort.
In addition, an onsite hotel is needed so that vets flying in from other islands have available lodging to help ensure that they make their scheduled appointments. It makes no sense to have to deal with the VA representatives in Hawaii or elsewhere when the medical need is found throughout the Marianas and Micronesia.
A second opportunity exists to introduce authorization language in the House of Representatives that establishes a long-term memorandum of understanding arrangement where the Navy provides the needed space, medical and mental health care delivery services to veterans at Naval Hospital Guam and the VA does its part by fully reimbursing the Navy for all billings incurred.
Third, Congress, the Pentagon and the White House need to take a comprehensive and very close look at all the personnel service records of Chamorro Vietnam veterans who served in combat to see if some of our brave family members of Pacific Islander ancestry merit the Medal of Honor. This presupposes a strong, ongoing, and coordinated effort coming from the CNMI and Guam congressmen.
Lastly, Guam and CNMI government leaders could organize a “Welcome Home” parade for our Chamorro and Pacific Islander Vietnam veterans or sponsor a Marianas Islands wide “Thank You” party once COVID 19 dangers pass. It is never too late to show respect and accord long overdue recognition to honor our Vietnam veterans, most especially those of ancient Chamorro Pacific Islander ancestry.