Coming of Age Where Military Service is a Rite of Passage

When I was 5 years old, my parents divorced and mom moved us to live with her parents in Am. Samoa. It was the early ’70's and I was the 2nd oldest of 2 sisters and a brother. Mom moved us from Arlington, TX to Pago Pago, Am. Samoa to live with her parents. It was a huge culture shock to my siblings and I, who didn’t speak Samoan, because most people there spoke little to no English, and didn’t understand the culture. My grandparents adopted my brother and I as we were the oldest kids. As time passed, mom had 3 more kids and most of them found their way into the Samoan culture, except for me and my youngest brother. We were (and still are) skinny. I had straight, long black hair and slanted eyes, and was teased my entire childhood. I just didn’t’ fit in because I wasn’t large, like most Samoans, who consider largeness to be healthy and blessed. I didn’t enjoy the high-fat, high-carbs meals enjoyed by my family. I tried so hard to gain weight but it was impossible. And I never learned how to give a formal Samoan welcome during family events, like funerals, weddings, church dedications, etc.; like my younger sister did. I was awkward with the graceful dances that all young girls learned; and I didn’t take interest in learning our history and family relations. Even though I sucked at being a native, I excelled in school. It was the one thing I seemed to be able to control.

It started with boredom and exhaustion from the many family chores. One day I found my mom’s Harlequin romance novels and started reading them. I would secretly borrow one and find a hiding place to read. These books took me to places unknown and after reading them all, I was hooked. Then I discovered the Canterbury Tales and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Oh, I was in love. I couldn’t get enough of these stories and often imagined similar events happening in my own backyard. Like the story of Excalibur, King Arthur’s legendary sword, that was believed to have magical powers. We lived in a village and our backyard was the Pacific Ocean, where there was a bed of water tucked away in a secluded area rumored to be cursed and haunted. Villagers stayed away from there but my grandma didn’t believe in ghosts and superstitions so we passed by that area often during fishing trips, and I would imagine Excalibur there, waiting for someone to retrieve it. When we passed by that area, I was afraid to look, in case Excalibur was there. What would I do? Would it pull me down into the deep water? I wasn’t afraid of the deep water, but I was terrified of Excalibur because of powers I read that it held. I’d get chills thinking about it and sometimes I’d be up all night imagining different scenarios. Reading became my pastime and I decided that I would travel the world and see all the exciting places I read about. I was going to be the first in my family to go to college and travel the world. I was an excellent student in high school so I felt that college would only expose me to even greater things and people. I knew my family admired educated people so that’s how I decided I was going to in to the family dynamics.

During my junior year in high school, the Army recruiters visited and tested all junior and senior students on the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) — the military’s entrance exam. Military recruiters carry weight back home so when my results came back with a high score, the recruiter was after me. He’d visit mom at work and then came to our house (to make sure I was going into the Army post high school). Even though I knew that my family wanted me to join the military, I planned to change their mind once I received an academic scholarship, which was normally to a college in Hawaii. I would show them that I deserved to go to college instead of the military because the military (I felt) was for people who couldn’t get into college. I had already set sky-high goals to get a PhD because I read that PhD’s made good money and that’s how I was going to make a living, probably teaching at the college-level or becoming an author. No, wait, I read that the higher paying jobs were doctors and lawyers so I think I might look into those fields.

Imagine my surprise when I graduated high school with an academic scholarship and my mom turned it down, saying that I was joining the military. I was so confused. I thought that getting an academic scholarship would change her mind and prove to her that that I was smart enough to get a scholarship, then I it meant I was supposed to go to college, but my family wasn’t interested in my plans. The Army recruiter already told mom that I could get a college degree in the Army, paid by the military. I was so upset and didn’t know what to do.

Kids at home obey their parents so I went to Basic Training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the summer of 1983. I decided I’d make the best of it and attend college in the military, and then get out.

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