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Palau divided over countrymen fighting for U.S.

The small nation is one of a handful of Pacific islands that have suffered a disproportionate number of casualties. Many young people become U.S. soldiers in part to escape poverty.

June 17, 2009|John M. Glionna

KOROR, PALAU — They carried Sgt. Jasper Obakrairur's body home Tuesday in a casket draped with an American flag for a service held inside a domed government complex modeled on the U.S. Capitol.

Obakrairur wasn't American, but a 26-year-old native of this Pacific island nation. He joined the U.S. Army five years ago, inspired by a sense of duty and a plan for a better life.

Known as Jazz by island friends, and as Sgt. O.B. by fellow soldiers, he was killed by a roadside bomb June 1 in a town outside Kabul, Afghanistan.

His funeral, held on a morning of sudden showers that alternated with stifling tropical sun, symbolized the division here over the fact that young Palauans are serving -- and dying -- in the military of a nation not their own.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Palau GIs: A photo caption in Wednesday's Section A that accompanied an article about citizens of Palau who join the U.S. military said a soldier's funeral was taking place in Koror, which it identified as the nation's capital. The ceremony was in Melekeok, which became the capital in 2006.

Watching the funeral and the casket-carrying soldiers with their precise movements, Lory Ngemaes felt torn.

"We're proud one of our own fought for America," she said. "But I told my 13-year-old son, 'You're not going. You are a Palauan.' "

In recent years, far-flung Pacific islands have suffered an outsized share of war casualties. Hundreds of their young have joined the U.S. military, often as a way out of isolation and poverty.

Guam, the Northern Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau have lost 32 men and women since 2003. A comparable fatality rate would stagger many U.S. communities.

Obakrairur is the fourth Palauan to be killed in conflict and the second to be buried here on the island, 4,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The republic of 20,000 residents has 200 fighting men and women in U.S. uniforms, according to Palauan officials.

A former U.S. territory with close ties to Washington, Palau has tried to demonstrate its value as an ally. In a move hailed by the Obama administration, President Johnson Toribiong this month agreed to accept 13 Chinese Uighurs from the Guantanamo Bay prison.

The decision to accept the Uighurs has further divided a populace already split by the willingness of some Palauans to fight under the U.S. flag.

Many endure each loss with stoicism, reasoning that U.S. servicemen lost their lives here. Palau was a major World War II battle site, and ships that sank during the fighting still litter its lagoons.

"The Palauans who join the military are considered heroes here," said Fermin Meriang, editor of the local Island Times.

But some, including former Palauan President Tommy Remengesau Jr., bristle at the presence of U.S. military recruiters.

"Our soldiers have served side by side with Americans. Now another has been killed -- blown up in a roadside bomb. Isn't that the ultimate sacrifice?" he said. "I think Palau has done its duty."

At a bar in Koror, a woman challenged an American, saying her son was stationed at the same Ft. Drum, N.Y., Army base where Obakrairur had received training.

"Why are we fighting your wars, for freedom? We already have freedom in Palau," she said angrily. "If my son dies, I am going to kill you and all the Americans who come here."

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Donald J. Goldhorn, who spoke at the service, told The Times that many small islands in the region had suffered high losses.

"But it will not deter people from this incredibly patriotic part of the world," he said.

Raphael Ngirmang, a stocky, white-haired Marine Corps veteran who is now one of Palau's top two tribal chiefs, said Palau owes a debt to the U.S.

"We're out here on an island in the middle of nowhere," said Ngirmang, a 27-year veteran who served in Vietnam. "The U.S. is responsible for our national defense. So we reciprocate. We may be a small island, but we've got a big heart."

The night before, islanders lined a darkened harbor causeway, lighting candles and waving American and Palauan flags.

They were waiting for the U.S. military plane to arrive with Obakrairur's remains, waiting for their boy to come home.

In the tightknit island culture, many people knew Obakrairur. He left Palau to attend college in Hawaii, where he joined the U.S. Army in 2004.

His father, Demei Obakrairur, told the Island Times that "when he spoke to us, he told us he's 21 already so he made up his mind."

Jason Vaughn, a soldier in Obakrairur's company, said there were two roadside explosions in the Afghan village of Nerkh. The first killed three soldiers. Obakrairur died in a second blast while en route to help injured comrades.

"The only good thing is that he didn't suffer," Vaughn said.

He said Obakrairur was a dedicated soldier whose Palauan accent was often difficult to understand "when he shouted orders at you."

Vaughn accompanied the body to Palau. He and another soldier, Chris Saenz, opened the casket the day before the funeral and noticed that some of Obakrairur's medals were missing. They replaced them with their own as they dusted the lint off his uniform.

On Tuesday, 250 residents crowded into the government complex for the military funeral. They held their hands over their hearts when both the U.S. and Palauan national anthems were performed.

His voice breaking, President Toribiong addressed Obakrairur's parents and sister. "To say thank you is not enough," he said. "But we sincerely appreciate your giving up a son, a Palauan son."

Then the motorcade of 100 cars drove slowly through mangrove jungle to bury Obakrairur in his native village, where the 87-year-old chief paid his last respects to a soldier who died in a modern war.

--

john.glionna@latimes.com

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