BY MORGAN LEGEL
and MAUREEN N. MARATITA
Journal Staff

Semes

Estimates vary on the number of citizens of the freely associated states serving in the U.S. military — let alone the number of veterans.

In April 2003, the Embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia in Washington said that “an estimated four to six hundred Micronesian citizens are serving on active duty with the U.S. military.”

When President David W. Panuelo visited Washington D.C. in October 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense said in a release about the visit that, “Published reports indicate up to 1,500 Micronesian citizens serve in U.S. forces.”

In July 2021, Task Force Oceania said “approximately 500 Palauans” were currently serving in the U.S. armed forces.

The newest leaders in the U.S. Veterans of Pohnpei Association in the FSM took the reins earlier this year, and one of their first courses of action was to put in the much-needed effort in doubling down and creating a list of veterans in not only Pohnpei, but all the freely associated states.

According to Herman Semes Jr., USVPA’s president, the U.S. Embassy in the FSM also compiled a list of veterans in the area, tracking more than 200.

“I think that number may have to be updated, though,” he said. “The number is likely higher because a lot of veterans are returning.”

The U.S. Embassy in Pohnpei declined to give the Journal the precise number on its list, citing confidentiality, but did tell the paper, “Every year, the Embassy provides support to the Veterans in commemoration of Veterans Day.  In coordination with the VA in Manila and Pittsburgh, the Embassy provides assistance with VA benefits including medical assistance.”

With his first order of business being compiling a list of veterans, Semes is focusing on Pohnpei, but hopes to move on to the other areas and states to be able to organize the veterans there as well. The USVPA has already put together an application process, with many veterans already starting to register. More than 20 applications have already been submitted, with more expected soon.

The USVPA originally began in the early 1980s, with a group of veterans who returned home from the U.S. and wanted to organize a group to care for their own that also served.

“We must never forget that this organization was created to honor and serve those who serve us — the people in the islands who left their families and loved ones to help protect us,” Semes said.

One of the main concerns for the veterans in the freely associated states is healthcare and other benefits allotted to veterans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Semes estimates that half of all veterans in the freely associated states are “fully retired” with U.S. citizenship.

However, citizenship aside, the problem then becomes actually using the benefits allotted to veterans. Benefits like healthcare, loans and cemetery placement are all non-existent in the FSM.

For example, any retiree who needs healthcare from a Veterans Affairs Hospital has to travel to Guam, Hawaii or another U.S. location to receive care, all on their own dime, according to Semes.

“Making it even worse, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the border closures around have left our veterans with no medical care,” he said. “It’s been really impossible for them to even access things like a standard health screening.”

If they want to see medical professionals or even get a screening, he said they have to buy their ticket from the FSM states to Guam. From there, they can even be further referred to Hawaii or somewhere in the U.S. for further screening, which they would also have to pay travel to.

Although there is a mix of ages in veterans in the FAS, Semes said most are “older folks who have spent more than 20 years in the military,” noting they served anywhere between the Vietnam War to Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East.

Semes said that there are U.S. qualified doctors throughout the FSM, and he is trying to work with the VA to get them permitted to work within the system, helping with their boots on the ground.

Semes said even something simple, like counseling or therapy for the numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, can’t be done on location and has to be routed through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mudong

Winfred Mudong, USVPA vice president, personally attests to these issues within the veteran healthcare network.

“I’m a fully retired veteran, and I’ve been using the veterans’ healthcare,” he said. “Since 2019 when the COVID thing started, I haven’t been able to have a chance to go back out to get even a regular medical checkup because of the lockdown and rules in the FSM — once we leave, it’s difficult to get back in.

“Before then, what I had to do was take the money out of my pocket to travel back to Texas, where my primary care manager is. Once I get there, I do the physicals and then get the recommendations to specialty care and then I do those there too, then return home.

“Even when I’m here, I cannot refill my prescriptions. In order to do that, I have to see my PCM or specialty care, which means flying all the way back to the states to do a face-to-face just to refill my prescriptions.”

Aside from healthcare, no VA loan certifications are able to be used for land in the FSM. There are also no veteran cemeteries in the FSM, so that benefit is void as well.

What the FSM and the other freely associated states need from the VA, according to Semes, is quantifiable. “With respect, what the VA can do to help veterans in the FSM is that they take a proactive stance in addressing some of the issues that the veterans are facing here. Veterans living here are unable to access healthcare and other benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Semes said his goal is to work with the VA and the U.S. Embassy, hoping to set up a way to verify the status of veterans in the FAS and compile an ongoing, thorough and accurate list of veterans in the area.

“Having the freely associated states, the FSM, the Marshall Islands and Palau, being able to speak as one and stand with each other for the VA and Embassy it would be a powerful voice, especially as more attention is being turned to our area,” he said.

Then U.S. Secretary for Veteran Affairs Robert L. Wilkie and President David W. Panuelo discussed improving the situation of U.S. veterans in the FSM during their meetings.
Photo courtesy of the Office of the FSM President

In an update to earlier stories on the veteran experience in the Journal, P. Tim Aguon, director of veterans affairs for the Government of Guam, told the Journal, Guam will be awarded grant funding for both the Guam Veterans Cemetery in Piti and the U.S. Naval Cemetery in East Hagatna. Aguon said that following an audit in 2018 — prior to his appointment — there had been no action. “We had to clear the audit and come up wit a correction plan and make all the corrections.” Those corrections are 95% complete, he said.

The grant of $7 million for the Piti cemetery will also cover essential capital improvement work, he said. The chapel restrooms are in non-compliance with ADA requirements and there is termite infestation, Aguon said. The cemetery has two years of capacity left he said. “That $7 million is going to give us expansion,” he said.

“For East Hagatna, we are going to harden the facility fence, install a flagpole and one row of columbariums. That grant is around $3 million.”

Aguon attended the February conference of the VA’s National Cemetery Administration and at a breakout conference meeting met with a Who’s Who of officials of the VA. (See “Thank you for your service,” in the March 7 issue of the Journal. “Nobody has gone in years to sit down with our federal and state partners,” he said.

As to the number of veterans in Guam, Aguon estimated around 25,000. His office registers every veteran that it assists, and currently has a registry of 23,000. One of the reasons for the existence of his office is to help veterans with benefits issues, Aguon said “to ensure that they get the services they deserve. That’s my whole goal.” mbj