Citizens of three Micronesian nations have been serving in the U.S. military since World War II.

And yet, because Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are not part of the United States, some residents say they are unable to secure Department of Veterans Affairs services — even basic medical help, which is virtually nonexistent in many areas in their own island homes.

On Tuesday, Hawaii lawmakers moved to change that policy, hoping to convince Congress to change that policy.

A memorial to fallen Micronesian soldiers at the airport in Pohnpei.

Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

A House of Representatives concurrent resolution unanimously passed two committees and now heads to Health Finance for expected approval.

HCR 176 urges Hawaii’s congressional delegation to work with the VA to “develop a program or pass legislation” to provide Micronesian vets with access to high-quality medical care.

Pacific Islanders from U.S. territories such as Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands receive full health benefits from the Veteran Affairs after serving in the military.

The three Micronesian nations, however, are party to a treaty with the U.S. called the Compact of Free Association. Under COFA, residents are allowed to work and live in the U.S. indefinitely while the U.S. retains defensive control of the three nations.

But the COFA nations are independent countries, and so even residents who served in the U.S. military can find it difficult to get full VA benefits in their communities.

In his testimony in support of the measure, Ron Han, director of the state Office of Veterans Services, said COFA veterans “deserve and have earned the right to quality health care.”

Han explained that Title 38 of the United States Code, the section known as the Veterans Benefits and Service Members Civil Relief Act, should be reviewed for changes to permit the VA secretary to expend resources “to deliver direct care in foreign areas” such as Micronesia and other COFA nations.

Melisa Laelan, a Marshallese court interpreter in Springdale, Arkansas, holding a photograph of her while she served in the U.S. Army. She’s now a U.S. citizen.

Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

HCR 176 has bipartisan sponsorship: Democrats Ken Ito, Isaac Choy, Marcus Oshiro, Calvin Say and Jimmy Tokioka; and Republicans Bob McDermott and Gene Ward.

Several of the representatives are veterans themselves.

Ken Ito, an Air Force veteran and chairman of House Veterans, Military and International Affairs Committee, said he was surprised to learn of the plight facing the COFA veterans.

Paul Hadik, a former educator on Chuuk in the Federate States of Micronesia who now leads the nonprofit Pacific Resources for Education and Learning on Oahu, shared letters with Ito from three COFA veterans who returned home after their service abroad.

“To make it short, there is no health care or medical assistance to hundreds of deserving veterans who have served and earned this benefits,” wrote Robson Henry, a retired Army sergeant first class who lives on Pohnpei. “We are slowly dying here on our turf where we were picked up and dropped off after honorably serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Sacrifices Made

Gregg Nakano, a Hawaii Naval Academy graduate who served as a Marine officer during the first Gulf War, complimented House lawmakers for “going the extra mile” to repay COFA veterans for the sacrifices they have already made.

He said many of the veterans, estimated to be about 1,000 in number, had “suffered in silence” since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Rather than get medical help at home, the COFA vets must fly to Hawaii to obtain adequate medical care at Tripler Army Medical Center.

There is an unbroken trust of a blood bond between brothers of arms on that battlefield, that no one gets left behind,” said Nakano.

While concurrent resolutions do not carry the force of law, they can demonstrate a governmental body’s official intent.

Also on Tuesday, a Senate committee approved a similar measure to HCR 176. It now awaits hearing in two other Senate panels.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 54 includes this language:

“If COFA veterans from Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands are not provided the same access of health care benefits by the end of fiscal year 2017, the Department of Defense recruiters in COFA nations are requested to inform recruits of the lack of health care benefits after service through a signed waiver confirming informed consent.”

The Senate resolution also asks that departments of State, Defense, Health and Human Services and other relevant departments and agencies develop, pay for and implement a health care plan for Pacific Island veterans that continues beyond the end of U.S. COFA funding, which is set to expire in 2023.

It calls for the funding to continue until 2066, “or when the United States military relationship with COFA nations expires, whichever is later.”

The measure also states that, if COFA veterans are not provided the same access to health care benefits by the end of fiscal year 2017, Department of Defense recruiters in COFA nations “are requested to inform recruits of the lack of health care benefits after service through a signed waiver confirming informed consent.”

SCR 54 is sponsored by Sens. Josh Green, Stanley Chang, Michelle Kidani, Karl Rhoads and Will Espero, all Democrats.

Read Civil Beat’s series, The Micronesians.

About the Author