BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent
MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Veterans from the Marshall Islands and the other freely associated states — all nations aligned with the US through Compacts of Free Association — must travel at great personal expense to take advantage of health benefits from the U.S. government they earned by their service in the U.S. military.
The practical impact of this situation is that most Marshallese veterans are completely unable to access healthcare services available through the U.S. Veterans Administration and to which they are entitled.
Majuro Nitijela (parliament) Member and Army veteran Kalani Kaneko has led advocacy over the past several years to find ways to extend services to veterans living at home in the islands.
“Marshall Islands veterans benefit issues have been on our radar for two decades but somehow nobody seems to know the solution,” Kaneko said. “This long period of waiting became a question and concern to our veterans resident in the Marshall Islands (who are) both RMI and U.S. citizens. Now that we all served honorably in peace and in war to protect democracy, freedom, and identity wherever we were needed, what is our value? This is the question we asked of U.S. and RMI government leaders. Why do we have to wait over two decades and still no answer for our veterans?”
The mid-November adoption by the U.S. House of Representatives of House Resolution 3730 is a step toward giving island veterans a voice and one that Kaneko and others have been supporting. The House legislation amends legislation of the Veterans Administration, establishing the VA Advisory Committee on the U.S. Outlying Areas and Freely Associated States to advise the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
HR 3730 was sponsored by Gregorio “Kilili” Camacho Sablan, the Northern Mariana Islands delegate to Congress; and supported by Michael F.Q. San Nicolas, Guam’s delegate to Congress; and American Samoa Rep. Amata C. C. Radewagen, American Samoa’s representative to Congress; as well as other congresspeople.
Assuming that it also passes the U.S. Senate and is ultimately signed into law by President Joseph R. Biden, the legislation will establish the advisory committee with representatives from all U.S.-affiliated islands. This will give island veterans their first direct voice in policies of the U.S. Veterans Administration.
“U.S. Veterans living in Marshall Islands are not asking for special treatment,” said Kaneko, who for many years served as a U.S. Army recruiter for the Marshall Islands. “We are simply asking to be treated like our brothers and sisters in-arms who are living in the States and Philippines. If VA can provide these VA services in the Philippines, why can they not do the same in RMI, FSM, and Palau?”
There were more than 700 Marshallese service members — active and retired — on an Army listing in 2014. Based on that, there are likely several thousand U.S. military veterans throughout the three freely associated states.
Kaneko said he believes it essential to keep elevating the level of discussions to get the health service issue resolved for island veterans. Negotiations with the U.S. for extending and modifying provisions of the Compact of Free Association offer an ideal platform to get veteran needs into the treaty between the two nations and into U.S. legislation.
“Our veterans would like to have our issues on the table during the Compact renegotiation,” Kaneko said. “This course of action may be the best and least traumatic for the U.S. government because they will not have to deal with other veterans in other parts of the world who may want the same type of service to be available.” This idea depends heavily on the Marshall Islands government’s interest to take up the issue at the talks with the U.S.
Despite the difficulty in gaining action on their VA needs, local veterans in the Marshall Islands in the past year took steps to increase their voice. They organized and registered the first American Legion organization in Majuro. It is designated as Post 22. It was formally established a year ago with a ceremony at the Marshall Islands Resort that included attendance by President David Kabua, U.S. Ambassador Roxanne Cabral, Kwajalein Army Commander Col. Jeremy Bartel, and many national and local elected leaders.
Army veteran Pamela Rubon is the first commandant of Post 22 which, in mid-2021 established its first office. Post 22 has 55 members.
“I understand the red tape of politics,” Kaneko said. “But I still believe that if we work together, if we make it a priority, we can make the change quick. But it will never be a priority unless somebody makes it a priority.”
Radewagen spoke of the collective effort that led to passage of the amendment creating the advisory committee for island veterans. “I appreciate how all the representatives from the territories worked together to strengthen our veterans’ communities throughout our various islands,” she said. “Thank you again to my friend, Congressman Sablan, for his leadership of this bipartisan legislation.” mbj