A Haven of Patriotism
The warmth of Guam’s tropical breezes are second only to the welcome it has extended over the years to the U.S. military. It is a tradition that began when American troops liberated the Island from the Imperial Japanese Army in 1944.
Guamanians continue to celebrate that day, along with the military, on July 21 with an island-wide holiday and a parade to beat all parades every year.
So it should be no surprise that “where America’s day begins” is not only a year-round haven for tourist, but for veterans as well. Many say that despite challenges when it comes to veteran services and benefits, it is hard not to feel at home on this pro-military paradise.
“Most of the people on Guam have been in military or their sons or daughters served in the military at one time,” says Tom Devlin, a Vietnam combat veteran with the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
In fact, this 217-square-mile island of 163,000 residents is home to about 27,000 U.S. vets who have served six months or more – about 15 percent of the population, according to John Unpingco of the Guam Office of Veterans Affairs. That’s substantial compared to the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of 8.9 percent nationwide.
Unpingco says Guam has long had a time-honored tradition of honoring military service and holding military veterans in very high esteem.
“They are willing to sacrifice everything, even their lives in defense of their country,” he says. “And they are trained to do it.”
While the vast majority of Guam’s veterans are locals who return to the workforce after retiring or transitioning out of the military, there are others like native New Yorker Bryan Strickner who decide to settle on island.
“I just happened to have been stationed here and stayed after I retired,” says Strickner, who now serves as commander of Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 1509 after a 20-year stint in the Air Force. “I was able to get a job fairly quickly.”
He adds that prospective employers on Guam tend to welcome veterans with open arms because of their sense of discipline and loyalty, along with a resiliency that is often built on real-war experience.
“People here are very patriotic,” added Strickner, “so it is good for veterans here.”
That’s not to say some veterans on Guam don’t face challenges. About 31 of the homeless on island are veterans, according to a Marianas Variety report. The good news is that organizations from near and far have been stepping in to lend a hand.
Local officials recently lauded a decision by U.S. Vets - Barber’s Point, a Hawaii-based nonprofit, to kick off its Emergency Housing Program on Guam. The new Latte Heights emergency housing center for veterans started accepting qualifying vets last month.
The nonprofit WestCare Pacific also launched its Supportive Services for Veterans and Families Program last month, thanks to a federal grant to assist Guam veterans who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. According to Shauna Barcinas, the West Pacific Islands coordinator, the program is providing veterans with emergency rental housing, transportation, legal assistance, child care, counseling and other vital services.
But accessing medical services for veterans comes with its own unique set of challenges on Guam, according to Unpingco.
“We are so far away, and we are also a territory and we are so few in numbers,” he says.
Despite its high concentration of military veterans, “the island ranked last in the country for per capita medical spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012, with an average of $822 for each former service member. Virginia had the next lowest rate with a much greater $1,275 per veteran,” according to the Washington Post.
A shortage of adequate medical services also means veterans often need to be sent off island to hospitals such as Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii to get special treatment involving internal medicine and endocrinology, according to Unpingco.
“The present Community Based Outpatient Clinic is too small,” he says, adding that disability payments are also an issue. “Claims are sent to the Hawaii Regional Office and this can add several months or years of waiting for the claims to be adjudicated.”
Local organizations, however, have shown their appreciation for veterans in more ways than one.
Recently, the Military Order of the Purple Heart stepped up to offer financial assistance for local veterans.
“The money has been generated by donations from the people on Guam to the wounded warriors on Guam,” Devlin said.
There also are some other benefits for disabled veterans on Guam. The Government of Guam also offers qualifying disabled veterans free license plates, as well as job hiring preference as well as other benefits, according to Unpingco.
Overall, many of veterans, both those native to Guam and those from abroad, say this as a good place to be a vet.
“Because here, service to one’s country is still seen as a very honorable calling requiring immense sacrifice, which our veterans are called upon to make and a lot of them have made,” Unpingco said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Guam Office of Veterans
V.F.W. POST 1509:
MILITARY ORDER OF PURPLE HEART (MOPH):
U.S. VETS – BARBER'S POINT: