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Guam's Young, Steeped in History, Line Up to Enlist

U.S. Territory Pays High Cost in War Deaths

SOURCE: | By Laris Karklis - The Washington Post - January 25, 2008
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 27, 2008; Page A15

BARRIGADA, Guam -- As a recruiter for the Guam Army National Guard, Staff Sgt. Gonzalo Fernandez has oodles of time for golf. In the past two years, he has taken 18 strokes off his handicap.

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Slipping away to the links, however, has done nothing to dull his rising star at the office. Thanks to the eagerness of young Americans on this remote Pacific island to join the military, Fernandez is a two-time winner of the Guard's recruiter of the year award for a seven-state western region that includes Colorado, Utah and California.

"I'll win it again this year," said Fernandez, who also expects to have time for a lot more midweek golf. "I have a very relaxing life."

On the U.S. mainland, long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made life miserable for military recruiters. The armed forces have repeatedly missed enlistment targets, and standards have been lowered in response. More recruits with criminal records and histories of drug abuse have been allowed to enlist. And recruiters, pressured to meet quotas, have increasingly been accused of unethical and criminal misconduct.

Nothing of the sort is happening here.

Part of the reason is economic. Poverty rates and unemployment on Guam -- a U.S. territory located more than 7,500 miles west of Los Angeles -- are historically much higher than on the mainland, and wages are low. Schools are poor, and technical training is hard to find. There is not much for young people to do.

But those are not the most important reasons, according to enlistees and recruiters, families of soldiers killed in action and veterans of the Iraq war.

The key factor, they agree, is the island's unique status in American history. People here grow up with war ringing in their ears -- as described by their grandparents.

Guam, a U.S. possession since it was taken in 1898 from the Spanish, is the only American soil with a sizable population to have been occupied by a foreign military power.

During World War II, the Japanese held the island for almost three years and brutalized nearly everyone on it. They created concentration camps, forcing the indigenous Chamorro people to provide slave labor and sex.

"If there is a group of Americans who understand the price of freedom, we do," said Michael W. Cruz, lieutenant governor of Guam and a colonel in the Army National Guard.

Cruz's grandmother told him awful stories: She was held in a concentration camp. She was forced to watch as Japanese soldiers chopped off the heads of her brother and her eldest son. Her eldest daughters were forced into prostitution.


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