Amata’s Journal: With Toa at Fort Benning
After filling the trunk of the car with tons of sweet onions from Vidalia and Georgia peaches from Peach County, we made our way west across Georgia to Columbus, the home of Fort Benning.
Even though I had been to there twice before, I was especially looking forward to this trip because a new 190,000 square foot National Infantry Museum opened there in June, 2009 on a 200-acre tract of hardwoods and pines just outside the gates of the Fort’s Maneuver Center of Excellence. Former Secretary of State GEN Colin Powell (USA, ret.) was the featured speaker for the dedication.
It particularly excited me to visit this magnificent new building not only for the awesome life-sized displays of famous infantry engagements going back to the American Revolution but also because they moved into the building the Army Ranger Hall of Honor and the Officers Candidate School Hall of Fame, into which my father was inducted. I was privileged to be there for his induction in 1979 and brought my children there to the old Hall some years later as we were passing through the area on the way to a conference in Alabama.
We were blessed to have been invited by military veteran Tumua Puailoa of Pava'ia'i and his lovely wife Tolua, who hails from Lauli'i, to stay in their home during our stay at Fort Benning, which was longer than our other stops because it stretched over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The Puailoa family was most kind to host us for our entire visit and it almost felt as if I were back home. The Puailoas have seven children, many of whom grew up in Columbus, which was Tumua’s final duty station before retiring from the Army; many of the kids still live nearby and are raising their own children there. Moreover, Tolua’s sister Sinoi Moimoi, Mark and family live next door on their cul de sac, in effect creating a compound-like atmosphere in the neighborhood.
I really enjoyed meeting and getting to know Tumua and Tolua's many family members including children Filo Soli and Dave; Fai Solia and Frank Solia (USA); Tumua Puailoa and Crystal (US Army Reserve); Nive Puailoa; Siale Puailoa who's stationed in Hawaii; grandchildren Tavita, Samuelu and Mana Soli; Masina, Frankie, Marley and Ave Solia; Tolua Yazmin Puailoa; Fetuao and Matthew Muao and Arienna Puailoa.
So, the Puailoas have assembled all the ingredients needed to successfully import Samoa into Columbus, GA, complete with an umu in their spacious back yard. Tumua has taught all the children and even the older grandchildren to put together an umu. There's a lot of hard work involved in the preparation so all hands were on deck beginning at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning to get the umu started and several hours later we, along with the Samoan community, enjoyed for Memorial Day weekend a perfectly cooked Size 2 pig and all the various delicious fixings and trimmings that go into a traditional umu.
It was great to fellowship with the Samoan community whose youth also performed and I marveled at how these young ambassadors excel at keeping our culture alive and their pride in their Samoan heritage is evident in their dancing and singing although many of them haven't ever been back home to the islands. Pastor Loama Sialega and his wife Renisi of the Samoan Christian Congregational Church of Columbus/Fort Benning, along with retired Pastor and Mrs. Sene, joined us along with the congregation and their families.
Fort Benning supports more than 120,000 active-duty military, family members, reserve component soldiers, retirees, and civilian employees on a daily basis. It is the home of the United States Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, the Armor School, the Infantry School since 1918, elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment 3rd Brigade- 3rd Infantry Division and many other additional tenant units.
Two days before our Memorial Day weekend gathering, however, I was invited by the base commander, MGEN H.R. McMaster, to be guest speaker at Fort Benning’s formal Asia Pacific American Heritage Month observance, which was held in the spacious McGinnis-Wickham Hall at the huge new Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.
At the conclusion of the program, which included a wonderful display of Polynesian dancing performed by the Hula Halau ‘O Kalani, which included Samoans as well as Hawaiians in the Columbus, GA-based troupe, I was presented with a certificate of appreciation signed by the General but, in what was a complete and heartwarming surprise, I also was presented with a replica of my father’s Hall of Fame Citation Plaque.
I will forever treasure that thoughtful gesture and will display the plaque in an honored place in my home. At some point in the future, I will donate the plaque to ASG so that it can be displayed either at the Jean P. Hayden museum or at Government House, where my father lived as the sixth longest serving governor in United States history, a fact that is forgotten or not known by many younger residents of the territory.
The observance concluded with a delicious luncheon that included an array of Asian and Pacific dishes to which all the Asian and Pacific military personnel were invited. I was delighted to be able to take this opportunity to greet and chat at length with some of the Samoan troops who were there, including CPT Helaman Fepulea'i of Pago village; SPC Manuel Kazaka of Tafuna; SFC Luki To'ia of Alofau; SSG Michael Petelo of of Pava'ia'i; SPC Joshua John Vegafria of Guam; SSG Robert Smith of Aua; SPC Nathan Vaitautolu of Tafuna; SSG Francis Leatiota and others and will be carrying their messages back to their families on island.
I also had the opportunity to visit with Eki Tupuola who was in training at Fort Benning and soon to graduate.
Our last day at the Fort was Memorial Day itself and I made it a point to visit the cemeteries at Fort Benning and Fort Mitchell, a historical site adjacent to Fort Benning across the state line in Alabama. Fort Mitchell was a 19th century army base whose cemetery is now under Fort Benning’s control. Accompanied by Tolua Puailoa, I laid a wreath at the grave of Frances Suapa'ia of Iliili, the Samoan spouse of an Army Command Sergeant Major who passed away in 2007. At the Fort Benning cemetery, we laid a wreath at the grave of Guamanian SSG Jose Perez Pangelinan, who died in 1995.
We were not aware of it at the time but in one of those not-so-uncommon “small world” coincidences in the Pacific, we learned that SSG Pangelinan was a first cousin to our dear friend David Perez, who once worked for my father on Saipan during Trust Territory times.
Our Memorial Day tribute to SSG Pangelinan — meant to honor all Pacific Islanders who have served in our nation’s armed forces and have since passed away —was now complete and we were on the road again.
More photographs from this and other stops on my trip can be found on the Aumua Amata Facebook page.
Next stop: FORT GORDON