Micronesians in Hawaii have been the subject of a lot of prejudice in these islands.
Civil Beat’s series “The Micronesians” helped explain why so many migrants from three Micronesian nations are allowed to move to the United States.
While I hope relations between Micronesians and Hawaii residents are improving, I am sometimes reminded how that may be wishful thinking.
Just the other day a friend complained about people at Ala Moana Beach Park she said were Micronesians. Some were chewing and spitting out betel nut, an admittedly unfortunate habit.
Maryann Nena sings at the graveside of her son, Sapuro, who was killed in action in Afghanistan.
In this column, the subject is another side of Micronesians, one few people know of: the ones who serve in the U.S. military, some of whom end up giving their lives.
I first came across the work of Nathan Fitch when I was working on “The Micronesians” for Civil Beat.
We used many of his photos from his time in Micronesia (in particular on Pohnpei and Kosrae) in the series.
Fitch also produced a short video for us, culled from footage of his “At Home While Away,” which tells the stories of eight migrants from Micronesia who moved to the United States (including Hawaii) for better opportunities.
“It still feels like there is a need to have a continued dialogue around the place of Micronesians in Hawaii, so hopefully the film can be part of that,” Fitch said by telephone from his home in Brooklyn.
“There is sort of a media representation, a stigma, that shows Micronesians as coming here with their hands out and not contributing to society. ‘Island Soldier’ is a counter-narrative to that.”
From Peace To War
Fitch, 36, is a producer, cinematographer and director.
A native of Denver, Colorado, he served in the Peace Corps from 2004 to 2006 on Kosrae. It’s one of the four island states that comprise the Federated States of Micronesia.
“Island Soldier” director Nathan Fitch on location in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Fitch’s Peace Corps work included documenting various cultural events on Kosrae. (He has a master of fine arts in documentary storytelling from Hunter College.)
He went back to Kosrae in 2011 to produce a 30-minute documentary on Kosrae’s occupation by the Japanese during World War II.
While the Marshall Islands, Chuuk and Palau were major battlegrounds in the Pacific Theater, the story of Kosrae is less known. Fitch said the Japanese enslaved the population and imported other workers to produce food on the fertile island.
To this day, Fitch retains an “enduring fondness” for breadfruit, a Pacific staple.
Kilfrank Sigrah, a former elementary school teacher in Micronesia, stands at attention at a forward operating base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
“Island Soldier” was produced with help from Humanities Guåhan and Pacific Islanders in Communications. It tells the stories of Micronesians serving in the U.S. military, primarily the infantry, as they deploy to Afghanistan in 2013.
Fitch, with body armor and Kevlar helmet, extra batteries in his cargo pockets and with camera, embedded with them. Here’s an excerpt from an article Fitch wrote for Pacific Islanders in Communication in 2014:
As the soldiers prepared the massive vehicles in which they search for Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s), dust swirled around their boots in sifting plumes. I tried not to think too much about what all that dust would do to the delicate sensor in my camera, and instead focused on trying to capture good footage; dialogue was out of the question because of the loud roar of the motors. The soldiers finished their preparations, and we pulled out of the protection of the FOB’s T-wall defenses, and out into the night.
While government data are not available to support it, it is believed by some that Micronesians — most of whom are not U.S. citizens — serve at a far higher per capita rate than do Americans. There is also active recruitment efforts on the part of the U.S. military in the region.
Fitch’s film asserts that Micronesians are killed at a higher rate than soldiers born in the 50 states, though the evidence is limited. One report, in Time from 2009, said of the Federated States of Micronesia, “In 2008, the country had more Army recruits per capita than any U.S. state.”
But it seems plausible.
“There is a scene in the film from Veterans Day 2015, and I have a list of all the Kosraean veterans and on active duty,” said Fitch. “It’s in the hundreds, and probably not everyone is on the list. That’s a lot for an island as small as Kosrae. There were 7,500 people living there when I was there. So many people are leaving that it’s now maybe 5,000.”
Fitch says he hopes that his film serves spurs the U.S. and the governments of the Compact of Free Association nations to track the numbers of Micronesian service members.
Another goal of “Island Soldiers” is to ensure that Micronesian vets, many of whom return home after their service, get any help they need. But Veterans Administration facilities do not exist in Micronesia, and so islanders must travel to the U.S. for help.
An aerial view in Micronesia, a region comprised of thousands of small islands in the Western Pacific.
“They are willing to go off and put their lives on the line for our freedoms, but they do not get all the benefits they are entitled to,” said Fitch.
“Island Soldier” has already shown at several film festivals and screenings across North America and in Guam, and others are planned.
Fitch was also in Honolulu recently to help Honolulu Theatre for Youth with its production of “Masters of the Current,” about the traditions and cultures Micronesians bring to Hawaii.
What’s next for Nathan Fitch?
“Good question,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t know that I have a great answer.”
Fitch did say he is working on a short documentary on George Booth, the cartoonist for The New Yorker, where Fitch himself worked for two years.
Editor’s Note: “Island Soldier” is part of HIFF’s Film For Thought program. It shows Nov. 3 at 8:15 p.m. at Dole Cannery D, and Nov. 5 at 1:45 p.m. at Dole Cannery C.
The first screening will be followed by an extended scholar-led Q&A discussion with the filmmakers to be hosted by Lola Quan Bautista, associate professor at the University of Hawaii Center for Pacific Island Studies.
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