The nation of Micronesia, a country made up of numerous tiny islands in the Pacific, has always had a complicated history of independence and occupation, the perils of which are laid bare in director Nathan Fitch and co-editor, co-writer, and producer Bryan Chang’s eye opening documentary Island Soldier, which makes its international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto this week.
Long before the turn of the last century, Micronesia has been in some form an occupied territory for various other superpowers. First, the native population of the islands were ruled by various European interests. Then it was the Japanese. Finally, it was the Americans. Then, in the early 1980s, the United States more or less withdrew from Micronesia, and the two countries entered into a compact of free association. Micronesia would be an independent nation, but would also receive financial assistance from the United States government. Additionally, any citizens of Micronesia could enlist and serve in the United States armed forces.
That’s the curious case that Fitch, a former member of the Peace Corps who served in Micronesia, and Chang sought to bring to light in Island Soldier. Micronesia has been seen by military recruiters as a paradise for enlisting potential soldiers. It’s not entirely hard to see why that is. Jobs are hard to come by on the islands, and even a paltry U.S. soldier’s salary is approximately five times more per year than the average Micronesian earns. That salary can’t be argued with, but the rub lies in the fact that since Micronesians are not U.S. citizen, they aren’t eligible for any sort of military benefits or care, and in the case of a fallen soldier, families have a painfully hard time getting any sort of compensation.
It’s a difficult situation that needs to be rectified, and we caught up with Chang and Fitch in advance of the film’s Hot Docs premiere to talk about the problems faces by Micronesia and its veterans.
Nathan, you were with the Peace Corps in Micronesia before making this, so you’ve already seen firsthand the conditions the people there live in under this free association compact. What were your impressions of how things were like there before you even started making this as a film?
Nathan Fitch: It was two years living in a community with a family with whom I had a room. It’s an incredibly different place with a very different culture, but there is an American influence there. Since TV came, they have sort of had this barrage of American culture broadcast to them: fast food, flashy cars, that sort of thing. It was interesting to live in a place where a generation ago people canoed around the island, and they lived on subsistence farming and fishing, and now with the advent of western culture into their society diabetes has become a problem. Many have become addicted to rice, Spam, and other imported foods.
I was running an art centre for young men, and one of the guys told me one day that he was going to enlist in the armed forces. I remember seeing him about a year later, and he was so completely transformed. He had done a tour of Iraq, he lost a ton of weight, and he talked differently. I was just kind of blown away by the change I saw in this guy. I tried to imagine what it was like coming from this peaceful place like Micronesia and having to leave.
It’s a place where community and family is everything, so part of the motivation to leave is economic and to provide for everyone. In the film, we mention that maybe one in ten people on the island has a job, and that one person will often end up providing for the other nine people. The military offers this opportunity at eighteen to go and become this breadwinner. Their wealth is measured more in how much you can give rather than how much you have, so this gives you an opportunity to be generous in a way that you couldn’t if you were a fisherman or farmer.
Taking Micronesia out of the equation for a moment and talking about the broader context of people joining the military, I think something emerges in this film that speaks to a larger experience. Most often the people who end up joining the military even in mainland America are people who are often from small communities with few opportunities. Was that parallel constantly on your mind when looking into what was happening in Micronesia?
Bryan Chang: There are a lot of similarities and dissimilarities there. I mean, in the islands there definitely is that small town mentality of people who have just known their island for their entire lives, and on top of that and wanting to make a good living, they want to go out and see the world. This is their ticket to go on this grand adventure, and there’s this image of the American military to build up your skills, become more worldly, and make something of yourself. I think that’s really alluring to them, and that’s definitely similar to small town U.S.A. where you can also escape the confines of a small town and find a way to support your country. In the case of Micronesia, though, they’re supporting an entirely different country, and that’s where the difference really lies.
One of the biggest ways in which this differs, however, is that for many people in America, enlisting in the military is a last resort or an act of pure patriotism. A lot of people in the U.S. join the military as a way to pull themselves out of something they feel they’re stuck in. In Micronesia, they’re really sending off their best and brightest into the military. Recruiters come and they have a very easy time filling their quotas on these islands because they’re recruiting these kids straight out of high school. They take this test, and the ones who do the best are ironically the ones they would like to have stay there or at least come back to improve the economy at home. Those people often end up leaving, and that’s a big part of the story; that trend of outward migration where their youngest and brightest are often going off to the states. It’s really difficult for them to return to the islands once they’ve established themselves elsewhere. It’s difficult for these veterans to return to the islands because there’s no way for them to get the same benefits if they return home. It’s this weird economic cycle, where they’re leaving and hoping for a better economic future, but many of them aren’t able to come back and re-inject what they learned abroad back into their communities. They often send money back to send their families, and that’s a big part of the model that the Micronesian culture really puts out, but that’s about the extent of it.
Nathan Fitch: I come from a military family. My grandparents both served in World War II. My father was in the military during Vietnam. But there was this shift when the U.S. stopped having a draft, and this notion of military service as a part of your civilian duty and patriotism has shifted now into a volunteer military. At some point during the course of making this film, I realized I had joined the Peace Corps to go and have my equivalent of military service. I grew up with this idea that I would go away and do this thing and come back somehow, hopefully more grown up in a way. I think, maybe, I had a strong, romanticized idea from books like The Caine Mutiny where you go off and come back transformed somehow. But then I watch what’s happening there, and I see Micronesians going off to war zones because privileged Americans like me don’t want to go to Iraq and get blown up. That sort of dichotomy hit me hard: that I was in this beautiful place trying to do something great for this community, but a lot of these people are over there doing things for my country that are more patriotic than what I’m doing.
Bryan Chang: As Americans, we always have to ask ourselves what duty do we have to our country, and what do we have to do to support it at home and abroad, but as young men in a U.S. that has no draft, we’re watching these images of war broadcast from across the globe. I know that’s not me out there. I went to a nice liberal arts college, and I started making films, and I had this life in New York, but seeing these guys going off and basically going off to the front lines and serving in the infantry in the most dangerous situations in Iraq and Afghanistan makes you wonder about your own duty. Admittedly, there’s some level of guilt there and questioning who these people are that are going out there in your place. That’s the central question of the film. Why would these guys go out there and put their lives on the line for this other country?
It’s a complex one that’s rooted in a deep history of colonialism in these islands, and a bred sense of dependency on larger countries that harkens back to the old days where there would be a larger island with a chief that the smaller islands would all send tribute to, so if a big tsunami hits, they can all seek refuge there. So the U.S., China, and all other large powers that are out there are seen as potential protectors, and there’s this lingering sense of gratitude and indebtedness for liberating them from Japanese rule during World War II, but it stretches from before that when they were under German, Portuguese, or Spanish rule before that. There was always some larger country that was ruling the area, and this is just the latest iteration of that.
Nathan Fitch: Like Brian mentioned, the compact carries a certain amount of protection to it. These are also islands that, it should be mentioned, are at the forefront of the debate about climate change, so there are a number of pressures to look at. There’s the geopolitics of China moving in and trying to take over this huge swath of the Pacific that has been historically important to the U.S. as a bulwark against Asian countries. But today, we fight wars differently, or the people in D.C. just don’t see the islands as valuable.
The funding there has been drying up for a long time, and there’s dissatisfaction on the islands with the treatment that they’re getting. It’s a complex issue because on one hand they’re dissatisfied, but they’re also grateful. While I was there, one of the things that I helped out with a lot was writing grant applications, and there are so many extra steps that have to be taken for just a small amount of money. Even as an American who has English as their first language, I can barely even get through or understand one of these applications, so to try to get someone else to go through all these American bureaucratic hoops just to get a little bit of money is frustrating.
But on the flip side, the more people enlist and the more people who have family enlisting the more pride there is. They hear these stories of how they had an uncle go off and join the military, and now he’s off doing all these cool things that line up with this romanticized view of things that they see on TV. Hopefully, one of the things that Island Soldier does is that it gives people on the islands a clearer idea of what they would be signing up for.
I can really only speak most adequately for Kosrae, which is the island the film mainly takes place on, but when a young man in the military comes home, he’s probably going to get married because he’s the big guy on the island. He owns a car, which is a big deal. If you can even spend thirty or forty dollars a day on a rental car, you’re a big deal. I think the recruitment rate there is steady, and this story is predicated on a place that’s really small, but sending a lot of people into the military.
Do you think that now that the compact is coming close to an end in 2023, has there been an uptick in Micronesians wanting to join the military?
Bryan Chang: That is something that we heard again and again, and that was part of the motivation for a lot of the people in our film. A lot of the people in the film said that they wanted their sacrifice to be known, and they want the U.S. to know that they support them, and they believe in the same ideals about freedom and democracy around the world. But I think in the back of the minds of many Micronesians is the winding down of this compact, and to show that they’re doing their part in this relationship between these two countries. They’re a small country, and it’s a bilateral agreement between these countries that should be, ideally, mutually beneficial. It’s carried out in good faith from when the contract was signed. They’re supporting the U.S., sending their best and brightest to the front lines, and in exchange they’re providing some level of financial support and protection, but because that’s winding down, these are dire times where they want to prove their support to the U.S. Their voices are small, and we’re hoping we can amplify them.
The funeral for a soldier whose body is returning to Micronesia is where your film begins, and the life of the family that suffered this loss becomes a large part of the film. At what point during the shooting did the funeral for Sapuro take place, and what was the family’s involvement in showing this side of this story for you guys?
Nathan Fitch: The real production of the film started in 2012, and the initial idea was to follow some young guys from the island in the military. I had shot some young guys leaving the island, and back in New York I started cutting together what I had. Because I was in the Peace Corps, I had thousands of Micronesian Facebook friends, and all of a sudden I started seeing all these notes and condolences and tearful statuses about Sapp. People on the island reached out, and said that this was a big thing for the island and they wanted to see if I could include it in the film.
I actually didn’t know the family when I shot their son’s funeral, but because I lived there for two years, and I knew the community, they were comfortable being there. There’s a scene where the casket is being lowered, and they cleared a path for me to get that shot because the community wanted that in the film. It was a really emotional thing to shoot for me. I knew how hard this was for them.
I interviewed the family after that, and Maryann, Sapp’s mother was so emotional about what we were doing. They’ve become huge champions of the film, and we would love to have them come to all the screenings that we do, but it’s just prohibitively expensive. And that kind of goes for us, too. Access to the people of Kosrae has never been an issue, but it’s prohibitively expensive to keep going there.
I think the one thing that’s going to stick in the minds of viewers who see the film the most is how unconscionable it is that these Micronesian veterans and families of veterans can’t readily access same benefits and resources that American veterans doing the same jobs are entitled to. What’s it like being able to uncover a situation where members of the American military are being essentially mistreated by their employers, but because they come from a small island nation that’s at an arm’s length from the U.S. that no one in power pays much attention?
Nathan Fitch: When we went to Hawaii, we talked to someone who worked at one of the VA hospitals there, and they told us about a Micronesian patient who lost both legs and one arm in Iraq, so as a result this soldier understandably had pretty bad trauma and wanted to go back to his island. The solider is back there now, and he has a wheelchair, but it’s one that breaks down constantly because there are mostly dirt roads and there’s no infrastructure there to take care of him. So this advocate – and I won’t use his name because he could get in a lot of trouble – scraped together some money to get this guy to Hawaii to try and get him just even a basic level of medical care, and to maybe fix a broken prosthetic and upgrade his wheelchair. This advocate’s job is to help veterans get the benefits they should be entitled to, and he was able to do this through getting donations and calling on the military community to help their fellow soldier to get help he couldn’t get otherwise. So for us, having someone who works for the VA clearly spelling out for us with examples how wrong this is was interesting to me.
The question of recruitment and service is one with a lot of complexity around it. When I was in the Peace Corp, I realized that if I were a young, ambitious Micronesian who wanted to see the world that I might have joined the military. In America, if you’re ambitious you go to college or university. If you’re ambitious there, you become a soldier. But the fact that these people go home to almost nothing isn’t right. Medications run out regularly every month. There’s a boat that only comes over with supplies every so often to the point where on Kosrae they routinely end up running out of even simple things like Tylenol. So you’re sending people back from the military who have done two, three, four, or more deployments, and then you make them have to pay their own way for a flight to Hawaii or Guam to get medical care.
I’ll let Bryan speak to this, too, but there’s another element to the film and to this issue that we don’t really go into, and it’s this thing where people from Micronesia who have served in the military in some cases for over thirty years, come home and have a really hard time getting back into the island. There’s nothing there really for reintegration, and these guys have a hard time readjusting, especially if they have any kind of PTSD or brain injury.
Bryan Chang: I would say that the injustice that we see here in them not seeing the same benefits occurs in this very specific circumstance where these islands are so far away, so remote, and so small that there’s not an advocacy group for them. There’s no motivation on the part of the U.S. government to recognize them or do right by them. They’re just such a voiceless, forgotten population, and getting to these hospitals for many veterans is an insurmountable logistical hurdle.
The U.S. government does OSTENSIBLY provide health care for Micronesian veterans, but they have to pay out of pocket to get somewhere with a hospital. That costs thousands of dollars, so if you have major injuries or you need to seek PTSD treatment, you can’t go home. If you go home, you don’t have the treatment. Even though, you could claim they receive the same health benefits, in reality, they don’t, and that’s because the islands are so far away and the economic situation back home is so dire.
And then there is the matter of the VA benefits that they straight up don’t get. They can’t get farm or home loans. Those are the kinds of things that could help people go home and begin their lives as working veterans. There’s not an easy path to citizenship for these folks who are putting their lives on their line. Well, there is a path, but it’s not an expedited one for what they do under these special circumstances. That’s completely unconscionable. These people love America, and they want to support them.