‘There we go, island sounds and a smokin’ barbeque’ says Sergeant Ed Siguenza as we draw closer to a bunch of heavily tattooed men prepping food as some electro soul pulses from an ipod.
This could be just another cruisy Pacific island scene – except we are in a desert, far away, in a war zone that continues to take island lives: Afghanistan.
Camp Blackhorse, on the edge of Kabul, is where Sgt Siguenza and I have come in after a morning mission with some of his Guam Battalion, deployed as “guardian angels” for US contractors inspecting armoured vehicles to be handed over soon to the Afghan National Army (ANA). It is one of their regular missions here to provide escort and protection to a range of civilian and military contractors working with local Afghans, and to stop any ‘green on blue’ attacks between Afghans and ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces). They will hover quietly behind the scenes, arms at the ready, always watching. We ‘downgrade’ in the midday heat; peeling off helmets and body armour and reach for cold water in this place filled with endless dust.
Someone appears with a plate and a cheer goes up – fried fish with ‘special hot sauce’ from Guam lands on the table.
‘Trust us islanders to come up with fish here in a landlocked country,’ smiles Sgt Siguenza and we dig in before our MRAP armoured vehicle collects us for the return drive back to our base at Camp Phoenix.
Although they are rarely acknowledged, thousands of Pacific islanders have served in various theatres such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa since the ‘war on terror’ began with the attacks of 9/11 in the US. It has been 12 long years of war, particularly in Afghanistan, a conflict that has killed dozens of Pacific islanders and wounded hundreds more. Most are Micronesian soldiers serving with US forces, but there are also Polynesians from Hawaii, American Samoa and New Zealand, Tahitians with the French, Fijians and Tongans with British forces and Papua New Guineans and Solomon Islanders with the Australians. Hundreds of Fijian civilian contractors also work there. There were only two Pacific nations I couldn’t find represented: Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands.
The war hardly touches those South Pacific and Melanesian nations whose national armies are not involved, but it is a daily issue for many in the North Pacific who listen to the news and have waited for their loved ones to come home. Anyone passing through Guam’s international airport cannot fail to be moved by the dozens of pictures of the fallen, which hang over the entrance. Flags seem almost permanently at half-mast. Now that Guam Battalion has returned home, how are the soldiers coping? Are their island communities able to deal with traumatised and wounded vets? The US has some shocking statistics around vet suicide and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). 22 vets kill themselves every day in the US; vet suicide rates are more than twice the national average compared to civilian suicides.
Thousands of Pacific islanders have served in various theatres such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa since the ‘war on terror’ began with the attacks of 9/11 in the US.
Micronesians have already paid a high price but more from combat deaths than suicide. They have reputedly the highest combat casualty rate, per capita, of any ethnic group in America and it has been that way since Vietnam. Their casualty rate is 450 times the national average, partly because they also have the highest participation rate – Micronesians have a long history of service with the US military, partly out of loyalty and partly for the benefits for them and their families – such as getting health insurance. This is the sacrifice many Micronesians make and there are policy challenges ahead for many island governments as their service men and women return home with injuries both physical and mental. Few at home can understand the experience they have gone through in a place like Afghanistan, a place known in history as “the graveyard of imperial armies”.
‘This is a special deployment for us because it is the first time we have deployed in Battalion strength,’ says their Battalion Commander Lt. Colonel Michael Tougher. ‘We have about 600 men in seven Companies operating across the Afghan theatre. Previously we only ever deployed in Company strength, with about 120. Now we have lots of specialists and are pretty self-sufficient as a Battalion. Micronesia produces fine soldiers, some of whom have risen to senior ranks including a two-star General.’
Through this photo project, it has been my intention to give a face to some of the thousands of Pacific islanders who have served there in a variety of ways, from Hawaiian firemen to Guamanian Marines and Papuan explosives experts.
There weren’t many fish dinners but the Pacific island soldiers I moved with displayed their professionalism and resilience at all times, in a place that could not have been more different geographically and culturally from their home islands. They showed how island culture can contribute to a modern army, island style. Music, cheerfulness and their strong sense of community brought its own aura of protection for all of us there.
As many countries in the region commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War One this year, let’s not forget the more contemporary sacrifices being made by island soldiers still going on today.
Desert Islanders, Ben Bohane’s exhibition opens this Thursday September 11th, at Alliance Francaise exhibition space in Port Vila. It is also showing in Guam and at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea. His recent book The Black Islands – Spirit and War in Melanesia, is available at Pandanus, the Vanuatu Kultural Senter and the ACTIV fair trade store in Port Vila. He can be contacted via the photo agency www.wakaphotos.com.
Story and photography © Ben Bohane.