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Amata’s Journal: Marines in the East

Asia Pacific American Heritage Month had formally come to an end for 2013 but I still had two bases to visit: Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and Fort Lee, Virginia.  I was looking forward to both with anticipation because this was to be my second visit to each installation. 


We departed Fort Jackson Friday afternoon so we could break the trip with an overnight stay with my nephew CPT Roland Tsuneo Glenister and his family at Fort Bragg.   A quick breakfast and we were off the next day on the four-hour drive to Camp Lejeune.


We arrived at Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine base, on a Saturday afternoon and once again were hosted by our dear friends Cory and Sylvia Sulua’I Avens.  Cory, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, is the owner of his own construction company.  Sylvia, from Pago Pago, retired from the Marine Corps and now has a civilian job in the area with the Defense Department.  


Camp Lejeune, the only Marine base we visited on this tour, is a 246-square-mile training facility in Jacksonville NC on the Atlantaic coast. The base's 14 miles of beaches make it a major area for amphibious assault training, and its location between the two deep-water ports of Wilmington and Morehead City allows for fast deployments.  The main base is supplemented by five satellite facilities and has twenty resident commands.  Along with Camp Pendleton, CA, Camp Lejeune is one of the two main Marine bases in the U.S.


Sunday morning I accompanied Sylvia and Cory to the River of Life non-denominational church, which had a wonderfully multi-cultural, diverse congregation, many of whom are in the military, so everyone seemed to have a crisp, fit, clean-cut appearance, particularly the ushers and church assistants.  The music was awesome and I found the "You are the Message" sermon to be very inspirational as it touched on breaking down walls.  I was drawn to the positive, energetic and dynamic Pastor Chris Phillips whose passion made him seem to be on fire for God and His people and I am certain I would have gone to that church every single Sunday with Sylvia had I lived in that area.  Pastors Miriam and Chris have undoubtedly had a life changing effect on many individuals.  


Following the worship service we headed to the park where the Samoan community was gathering.  As people began to arrive with delicious Samoan dishes, the barbeque was fired up for grilling sausages, pork, beef and chicken.  The aroma was overpowering.  What better way to spend a warm Sunday than at church and at a picnic.


HMC (RET) Sylvia Sulua'i Avens of Pago, was a spark plug for bringing this event together along with HMCM Tavita Feti Saelua (MARSOC) USN of Nuuuli, a cousin of Governor Lolo’s chief of staff, Fiu Saelua.   Between the two of them, they must have brought together about a hundred people for this event.  


Throughout the course of the BBQ, I had a chance to spend time with Samoan active and retired military civilian personnel of the Samoan community including (USMC RET) Filipo & Mariane Bartley family of Manu'a; USMC (RET) Ve'a & Eseta Mageo family of Pago Pago and Aoa; Sua Masoli family from Nuuuli; Sylvia Sulua'i Avens and her husband CDR Cory Avens (USN Retired); Iakopo & Teresa Ape family from Laulii; SGT Frank Porter MARSOC USMC family of Futiga;  LCDR (USN RET) Tepora Su'esu'e Beckman from Manu'a; MSGT Tanielu Tulifua II MEF USMC from the Tualauta district. CPL Samoa Osoimalo Tank Battalion USMC; MSGT USMC William Flatt and wife Cathryn and their children; Feti Tavita Saelua of Nuuuli, his wife Jess and children Zenora, Tala and Sione Saelua; Yvette Ferguson and her husband and son; Iupeli Hugo; Trixie Sturgis; Sophie Dupree; Nick Bartley and family; Mel Casaretto whose husband is a USMC veteran; Destiny; Bobby (USMC Retired) and his wife Cora Tucker; Joann Shen, Public Health Corps; LTJG USN Rannie Simpson; Daniela Lopez, a USMC military spouse; Reina Romero; Dawn Brown; Kekoa Brown and Leranda Lee and Eric. 


Unlike most of the army bases, the Marines do not have a formal Asia and Pacific American Heritage observance in the spring.  Rather, they hold an extravaganza in the fall that honors all ethnic and heritage groups.  I have no doubt Samoan performances dominate that event as they did every observance we attended on this tour.


However, Sylvia, Feti and some of the other leaders decided the time was right to form a separate Asian and Pacific Islander organization for this part of the state and the idea began to take form right at this picnic.  One of the most satisfying aspects of my travels around the country to visit island communities is to bring our people together wherever I may find them and be able to serve as a catalyst for the formation of communities of interest among them, whether it be just social in nature or to empower themselves in the larger communities in which they live.


Since we departed, the group has gone on to establish the Eastern Carolina Asian Pacific Islanders (ECAPAC) group, complete with their own Facebook page, which I encourage readers to visit.  They already have met to elect officers and I think the group promises to grow and become as well known as Iakopo Poyer’s Pacific Island American Group of Virginia (PIAGVA) just to the north.             


Feti Tavita Saelua and Sylvia Sulua'i Avens deserve a lot of credit for organizing this event and pulling together the Samoan community.  This was a family oriented event and I was delighted that so many of the young people present put on such wonderful dance performances for us.  Some of them have not been home yet to visit grandparents, aunties and uncles, but they are learning our customs and traditions for when that day comes. 


When I was called upon to speak, I made the very point of how proud I was of our Samoan youth growing up so far from the islands but continuing to embrace our culture.  I will treasure the model North Carolina lighthouse I was presented as a token of appreciate for coming all the way out to eastern North Carolina to be with local Samoan families.  I will particularly cherish this gift because so many of our people autographed it.


We spent another lovely evening with Sylvia and Cory before heading off Monday morning to the ninth and final stop on our trip.   More photos of my visit to Camp Lejeune can be found on my Facebook page: Aumua Amata. 


Next stop: Fort Lee, VA


CAPTION FOR PHOTO BELOW. Aumua Amata enjoys meeting and chatting with Samoan civilian and military personnel who attended the Camp Lejeune picnic/BBQ, including