When a recruit from Micronesia earned his title of U.S. Marine last year, he never dreamed his first deployment would be to his tiny tropical homeland in the western Pacific.
Alexiander Sigrah is not only back in his native country, but his family surrounded him as he stood on the familiar hot and humid beach of Kosrae Island and was promoted in rank to private first class.
“It was the greatest day of my life,” Sigrah, 20, said. “Everybody was so proud of me.”
Most of his large family still lives on the 42-square-mile tropical island – it is the easternmost island of the Federated States of Micronesia, not far from the Philippines, China and Indonesia. The only one missing from his promotion ceremony was his mother, who was away at work on another island.
But it wasn’t her fault she missed out; Sigrah’s return was a surprise, and so was his promotion.
“I went away from there to join the Marine Corps, and now the Marine Corps is bringing me back,” said Sigrah, a motor transport technician who deployed with the Combat Logistics Battalion 11 from Camp Pendleton in July.
Sigrah is among 200 Marines and sailors who are helping the local community and security forces with engineering, medical services and training, such as how to enforce maritime law and how to dispose of explosives. As part of Task Force Koa Moana, their mission is to build stronger relationships with the Pacific Island nation and support a newly signed defense agreement.
While the promotion was a huge highlight for Sigrah and his family, he said he is much more excited about another quest he’s on: Becoming an American citizen.
Most immigrants who serve with the U.S. military must first secure a legal permanent resident card, but Micronesians can serve without that requirement because the country is considered a trusted territory, said Master Sgt. Rebekkah Heite with the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.
That means its residents can work in the U.S. indefinitely without becoming legal permanent residents under a compact between the U.S. and Micronesia formed in 1985, when the former American territory became independent.
Though the island nation, made up of 600 islands and islets, is now independent, the U.S. is responsible for its defense. The compact requires the U.S. provide financial assistance and defend Micronesia’s territorial integrity.
In return, the island nation provides the U.S. with unlimited and exclusive access to its land and waterways for strategic purposes. The U.S. has recently expanded its support for Micronesia – and the nearby Marshall Islands and Palau – in part because of Chinese efforts to build influence in the Indo-Pacific, officials said.
Hundreds of immigrants enlist in U.S. service branches each year. Last year, 34 Micronesians signed contracts with the Marine Corps. There are four Marine recruiters who work the islands of Micronesia each year, said Lt. Steven Hunt, a recruiting spokesman in San Diego.
While not all recruits become U.S. citizens, naturalization and being a Marine are among Sigrah’s highest priorities, he said.
His command is helping him work through the citizenship process, in which he’s already put in a two-month effort. Sigrah said he plans to hit the books hard when he returns from deployment at the end of September.
He must serve at least one year and have a certificate of honorable service to become a citizen, Heite said.
Nathan Fitch, a former Peace Corps volunteer, filmmaker and assistant professor at New University in New York City, has spent time in Micronesia and made the film “Island Soldier” to tell the story of U.S. military service among the islanders and the challenges they and their families encounter.
Old Japanese bunkers, reminders of World War II, still dot Kosrae, and many older folks on the islands remain highly appreciative of the U.S. liberation, Fitch said.
“There are a lot of military bumper stickers, veterans and amputees on Kosrae,” he said. “The whole colonial history and how the islands were controlled by the Japanese where many of the indigenous people were enslaved. To be a U.S. soldier means a lot. When I was on the island, there was this idea that when a Kosraen soldier came home, girls would fight to marry him.”
Joining the military – he said he’s observed many islanders joining the Army – is a way for Micronesians to support themselves and their families.
“There’s so much more money they can make,” Fitch said.
When he visited, the hourly wage hovered between 25 center to 50 cents and a can of Spam cost about $5, Fitch said. “At that time, a private in the Army made $18,000 and the governor made about that.”
Fitch’s film, which in 2018 was also shown to the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior, also considered some of the drawbacks of U.S. military service for the islanders.
For Micronesians who serve in the military but return home after their tours, access to veterans benefits they have earned can be difficult. Their islands are far from Veterans Administration hospitals and some have to fly hundreds or thousands of miles to get services.
While federal law allows the V.A. to help veterans with health-related travel, the trips have to be within the U.S. and its territories.
The veterans are also not eligible for traditional VA loans and financial services.
And obtaining U.S. citizenship can be a lengthy process and not as easy a path as recruits expect, Fitch said.
“It’s complicated because you can’t have dual citizenship,” Fitch added. “But if you’re not Micronesian, you can’t own land and owning land there is very important.”
Fitch said there is a movement to extend benefits and services with the creation of clinics in Micronesia and more remote services, such as telemedicine and internet counseling for post traumatic stress disorder. But legislation that would help that effort proposed by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, has stalled.
Sigrah said growing up on the island he was familiar with the U.S. troops who came over to help his country.
“I thought of them as proud people who came to serve their country,” he said. “Back at home, people respected Marines and looked up to them.”
Sigrah first met military recruiters in high school. Though his parents had hoped he’d go to college and become a doctor or lawyer, military service was more enticing, he said.
Though the lush green island’s laid-back lifestyle was serene and had its own appeal, he wanted to do something more exciting, he said. The idea of becoming an American citizen won him over.
“Life at home, we’re dependent on American currency,” he said. “We don’t have enough jobs. By joining the military, it’s like getting automatic citizenship.”
He decided on the Marines, he said, because he sees them as the “godfather of branches.”
“They’re always prepared, squared away; that’s what I wanted to be,” he said. “I want to be respected.”
When Sigrah graduated from high school, he went to Hawaii to work and then headed to Missouri, where his uncle, who joined the U.S. Army and is working on his own U.S. citizenship, is based.
His uncle introduced him to a local Marine recruiter who explained military occupation opportunities to Sigrah and it wasn’t long before he shipped off to boot camp in San Diego.
Boot camp was “pretty rough” at first, Sigrah said, then as he understood the discipline required, pretty soon “stuff became easier.”
“We always do everything as a group and no one gets left behind,” he said. “I made a lot of friends, the most I’ve ever made in a short period.”
While his family couldn’t come for graduation, he told them about it a day later using a computer at a public library.
“They thought I was still in training, but when I called them, they were very happy and excited,” he said. “They didn’t recognize me. I used to be a chubby kid and they looked at me as though I was a different person.”
“My mindset is different,” Sigrah added. “Before I joined the Marine Corps, I had a mindset of being lazy. Now I’m always ready.”
Sigrah said he’s enjoyed being back around the tropical vibe and the island’s fresh food. But that’s only when he’s not busy helping his unit with the work it is doing. He’s also helped the command with translation when necessary, though English is spoken in most places.
His unit has been busy. The Marines have repaired schools, hospitals and firing ranges. They’re holding first aid classes, blood donor registration drives and dental hygiene classes for elementary school-aged children.
When they’re not working, they’ve played sports, held mess nights and done workouts. And they’re working with local security forces in Micronesia and Papua New Guinea.
In the short time he’s been back, Sigrah said he’s been talking up becoming a Marine to others. And all who knew him before a Marine are impressed with who he’s become, he said.
“They say I’ve changed in personality and character and now they’re asking me for advice,” he said.
“I would encourage most young men and women here to join the military as a start for them,” Sigrah said, “and also that it gives them a lot of opportunities.”
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