Hawaii Congresswoman Jill Tokuda wants the U.S. Defense Department to study whether it’s feasible as part of a larger effort to rebuild trust with the military.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda has an idea to help rebuild the relationship between the military and those living in the islands. 

Have service members and their families learn Native Hawaiian culture and values as a way to integrate better into the broader local community.

Tokuda, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has been pushing legislation that calls on the Defense Department to study whether such a cultural training curriculum is feasible for soldiers and civilians stationed in Hawaii. 

This week she was successful in securing language in Congress’ annual defense policy bill that would require that study to take place by March 1 of next year. 

“This is a win for Hawaii and we’re going to work to protect it,” Tokuda said. 

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda walks with officials from Joint Task Force-Red Hill (JTF-RH) during a Congressional Delegation (CODEL) visit to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility (RHBFSF) in Halawa, Hawaii, Feb. 23, 2023. The CODEL toured the RHBFSF to gain insight into the JTF-RH's mission and to understand steps the Department of Defense is taking to safely and expeditiously defuel the facility. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Orlando Corpuz)
U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, tours the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. (Joint Task Force Red Hill photo)

The Armed Services Committee passed the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 58-1 despite many hours of debate, much of it focused on GOP efforts to curb anti-discrimination initiatives and prevent service academies from teaching critical race theory. 

Tokuda’s provision, however, was already included in the bill as part of a previous mark-up approved by committee chair Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, which bodes well for its inclusion in the final bill. 

Tokuda said the fact that her provision was not targeted by Republicans is an indicator of Hawaii’s importance to national security in the Indo-Pacific region. 

It also highlights the recognition, particularly by those on the committee, that the military needs to act as a “good neighbor.”

That hasn’t always been the case, especially lately. 

The friction between the U.S. military and the Native Hawaiian population is longstanding and has only been exacerbated by the crisis at Red Hill, where a 2021 fuel leak from a Navy facility poisoned the groundwater and sickened thousands of nearby residents.

Tokuda said much of her work on this year’s NDAA has been focused on addressing these broader concerns within the community while also giving the military what it needs to function effectively. 

She added that this has been an ongoing goal of the congressional delegation as a whole. 

“We have to recognize that we have a broken trust in the relationship between the military and the people of Hawaii,” Tokuda said. “Rebuilding that trust is not going to be a one-shot deal or silver bullet kind of effort. It’s going to take repair on a lot of different fronts.” 

Tokuda said providing cultural training to troops and their families could help them adjust to life in the islands and feel as if they’re a part of the community, which in turn could lead to better relationships with residents. 

She acknowledged that there are many nuances to island life that people might not understand and that it’s easy for those who move to Hawaii to experience “culture shock.” 

“This is really looking at how we can make this a positive experience for both our military service men and women and their families as well as our local kamaaina,” Tokuda said.

East-West Center President Suzanne Vares Lum lauded Tokuda’s efforts, saying it has the potential to create a more inclusive environment in the islands. 

Vares-Lum is a former major general in the U.S. Army and is herself Native Hawaiian.

She said that while high-ranking officials often receive training on Native Hawaiian history and culture it doesn’t always trickle down. 

“What a great way to build the soul of Hawaii in a way that includes the military component and the military families that make this their home,” Vares-Lum said. 

Tokuda secured a number of additional amendments in the NDAA that she said are aimed at rebuilding trust within the community while at the same time holding the military accountable for its actions in the islands. 

For instance, one provision would require the Defense Department to study the military’s impact on the housing supply in the islands, including in the private rental market. 

Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Ford Island Military Housing.
Military housing at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam provides for many military families in the islands.

That study, among other things, would look at the availability of housing in communities next to military installations and force officials to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of requiring service members stationed in Hawaii to live in on-base housing. 

The study would also include an analysis of the military’s housing stock in Hawaii and the cost of building and maintaining an amount that’s considered “optimal.”

The congresswoman is also pushing other amendments, including one for the secretary of defense to appoint a single official to coordinate upcoming land lease negotiations for training areas, including at Pohakuloa on the Big Island.   

She’s also called on the Pentagon to update its strategy for addressing human trafficking. 

Whether Tokuda’s provisions become law is another question altogether. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee was debating its own amendments to the NDAA this week behind closed doors.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who sits on the committee, said she could not comment on those discussions, but said that she supports Tokuda’s efforts, particularly as it relates to cultural training for soldiers. 

“I believe exposure to diversity is a good thing,” Hirono said. “And as a general proposition I think that diversity training and inclusivity training is important throughout the military.”

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