War Stories from the Tip of the Spear

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Minister for Japan's Foreign Affairs Hirofumi Nakasone shake hands after signing an agreement on Feb. 17 finalizing the transfer of 8,000 U.S. Marines from the southern island of Okinawa to Guam by 2014. (Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi-Pool/ Getty Images)

It was a typical day in the jungle, though more overcast than the usual island diet of blue skies and fluffy white clouds—drizzling rain misting up the sticky, humid air, a breeze stirring through breadfruit and banana leaves. I arrived at the family home of Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Anthony Carbullido, Jr., whom the Department of Defense (D.O.D.) had recently listed among the dead to be routed back from Afghanistan to Guam through Dover, Delaware—the victim of an improvised explosive device.

Family and friends of the corpsman sat in rows of folding chairs under a glowing green fiberglass awning, reciting the rosary, "May eternal peace and rest be unto Tony…" a dull, sleepy drone mixed with the static rain. To the side of the house, under a separate awning, tables were set with large trays of traditional Chamorro food. A pit-bull puppy pawed at the kitchen door, leaving streaks of red clay as more family members prepared food inside.

I had been in Guam less than a month, working for the Gannett-owned Pacific Daily News (P.D.N.). My assigned beat was "health and environment," and while the Carbullido rosary service did not exactly fall under the banner of that beat, it was assigned to me when one of my co-workers said he needed a break from covering such functions, as the process of extracting a story from a grieving mother is—at best—draining. In the darkened living room, I was made to understand this sentiment all too well as I held my recorder in the mother's face and asked her how she felt about her son's death.

Aurora Carbullido, the mother, said that her son's death was the realization of her fears as a mother of a sailor involved in active duty. "I've seen past pictures and past articles [of troops who have died in combat] and it scared me because my son is over there," she said.

"This is a hard situation to be in," Anthony's father said. "It's hard to believe that this is happening to us."

Their disbelief was manifested in the way Aurora still talked about her son serving in the present tense. The idea that they would soon be shoveling clay onto their son's face had not yet hit home.

There had been a steady succession of these stories, as Carbullido was the 17th casualty from Guam and the 29th from the northern Marianas region since the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. This succession has given Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, with a population of under 300,000, the dubious honor of being the region of the United States with the highest number per capita of such casualties.

This would be comparable to a city the size of Spokane, Washington, taking the same blow in the "War on Terror," but with one large difference: in the insular world of Micronesia, everyone is related in one way or another to everyone else. Few get out. It is because of this that one family's pain ripples through the entire community.

At present, a third of the island’s landmass of 209 square miles is occupied by either Andersen Air Force base or U.S. Naval Base Guam. Guam is often proudly referred to as the "tip of the spear" for U.S. military operations, as it is the furthest military outpost from the U.S. mainland. Many bumper stickers also proclaim: "Guam: where America's day begins."

Guam has no exports, virtually no agricultural production (due in large part to military contamination of the land and water, much of it attributed to nuclear weapons testing that took place in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1962. Legislation has been introduced repeatedly—with little success—by Guam Congressional Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo to include the territory in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act) and no other line of production. Outside of federal subsidies, the main source of revenue is in the trade of Japanese tourist dollars, a revenue stream that has been dwindling in recent years.

This dead-end environment leaves the military as the only viable option for many young people looking to get out.

Following the recitation of the rosary, I spoke with several of Carbullido’s friends and relatives. As I was talking to his teenage brother, one of his cousins joined us.

"What do you think? Still planning on joining up?" the brother asked the cousin, a man in his early twenties clutching a Bud Light can.

"Yeah," he said, raising the can and tilting his head.

"This doesn't change your mind at all?" asked the brother.

No, the cousin replied; there really wasn’t much other choice for him—no other way out, or up—even if it meant coming back in a box.

Unfortunately for those whose families cannot afford private school tuition or higher education, even the military option appears to be closing on them. A recruiter for the Guam Army National Guard told me that, while he has seen an increase in interest in military service in the region, increasing numbers of young people educated on the island have been unable to pass the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Test.

The Guam Public School System (G.P.S.S.) is, by far, the GovGuam line agency beset by the most demons, which is considerable, given that GovGuam could be likened to a boondoggle of contemptuous, incompetent snakes, each trying to bite the other's head off in the perennial battle over the territory's small annual budget.

Last year the office of the Guam Attorney General closed down several of the system's schools, citing exposure of students to raw sewage, asbestos and fire hazards. All but one of the schools have been reopened to date, but the department has still been unable to fill its staffing needs, students still continue to perform well below national standards, and at a 2008 budget hearing a G.P.S.S. employee told the Guam Legislature that teachers in the system actually had a higher absenteeism rate than students.

Even if enlistment is not always an option, many still see the Department of Defense as Guam's Savior. In 2006, the D.O.D. announced plans to relocate some 5,000 Marines and their dependents from the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa to a new to-be-built base on Guam.

The estimated impact of the shift or "military buildup," as it is commonly referred to, when considering the number of workers to fill jobs created by the need to expand both civilian and military infrastructure, translates to at least a 20 percent population boom over the course of a few years, set to begin (tentatively) in 2010. Some believe that a 20 percent population increase is a conservative estimate and set the number much higher.

Many members of the Guam business community and government are bedazzled by what they anticipate to be a cornucopia of new possibilities in profit and employment offered through the expansion. Many of these dazzled individuals are the same ones who advertise in, and thereby underwrite, the island’s news media, chief of which is the same Gannett-owned Pacific Daily News for which I covered the Carbullido rosary.

For this reason, it should be no surprise that the media in Guam rarely publishes stories like Anthony Carbullido's, stories that reflect the military's darker news. For instance, the P.D.N. refused to cover any story outlining the long shadow of rape and assault allegations that accompanied the history of Marines stationed in Okinawa and whose arrival was being staged on Guam.

Despite media outlets' unwillingness to report any story critical of the D.O.D.'s plans for the island, events that allow the public to voice their concerns and ask questions of those involved with the proposed buildup have drawn large crowds. The large turnout at such forums suggests that those who are concerned for their island's future in light of such weighty developments are not marginal or fringe groups, as the dismissive attitudes of the D.O.D. and the P.D.N. would suggest.

At a forum held in November at the University of Guam, panellists from both the Civilian-Military Task Force, which works under the auspices of the Office of the Governor with J.G.P.O., as well as members of the community working toward Guam's self-determination, stated both their progress and concerns with the buildup.

Panelist Mike Bevacqua of Famoksaiyan said all residents of Guam, regardless of their position on the buildup, need to realize that the buildup will affect them personally. He encouraged residents to take a more proactive role in the course of their and Guam's future. "This military buildup is predicated on the fact that you live in a colony and you can be treated as an object for the subject of the United States," Bevacqua said, "as a weapon of the warrior of the United States military. This is the United States military sharpening the tip of its spear."

Mohamad Hodai attended the University of Arizona School of Journalism and has written for several publications, including The Naughty American, NewsTarget.com, Tucson Weekly, The Pacific Daily News and The Marianas Variety.

A longer version of this article was originally published in News From Indian Country, http://indiancountrynews.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6896&Itemid=64.