Servicemembers are routinely called on to deploy to Spartan trouble spots where the locals may try to kill them and entertainment consists of pumping iron or watching DVDs in a plywood shed.
But not every deployment is inherently dangerous or uncomfortable.
This month, 83 U.S. personnel are working on the idyllic South Sea kingdom of Tonga. Also known as the “Friendly Islands,” Tonga is a place where gentle waves lap at white-sand beaches, Polynesian princesses dance for guests and giant, tattooed warriors drink kava long into the night.
The servicemembers are participating in Pacific Angel, a mission that involves 175 military personnel from New Zealand, Australia, France, the Philippines, Indonesia and Tonga. They’re helping prepare local officials to respond to a typhoon, tsunami or other disaster.
Lt. Col. Brendan Noone, who was leading a group of military doctors working out of a schoolhouse this week, said the medical personnel were gaining the sort of experience they would need for disaster response.
“Our guys learn how to work out of their comfort zone seeing things they don’t normally see back home,” he said of the medical staff, which saw more than 1,200 patients over a two-day period this week.
U.S. personnel have also been helping renovate schools, but the mission isn’t all hard work. During down time, they’ve been relaxing at the beach, snorkeling and learning about the effects of kava. The mild sedative is a muddy concoction that is widely consumed throughout Polynesia. Prepared in a large wooden bowl, it’s an acquired taste — some people say it tastes a bit like wet cement. It mostly affects the body while leaving the mind fairly clear, allowing villagers to sit for hours in conversation while drinking it.
Hawaii Air National Guard Col. Earl Alameida, Pacific Angel mission commander in Tonga, said kava is popular in his home state, where it’s known as “awa.”
It’s the first time that Pacific Angel, which has sent personnel to the South Pacific for the past seven years, has traveled to Tonga, he said.
The peaceful and relatively isolated monarchy has a very small military — just 600 personnel — known as “His Majesty’s Armed Forces,” according to Maj. Maama Misi, who is leading the Tongan soldiers participating in Pacific Angel.
Tongan soldiers saw action on the Allies’ side in the Solomon Islands during World War II. Tonga also sent personnel to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Misi said.
According to Alameida, a goal of Pacific Angel is building relationships with the Tongans.
That’s something that other nations are also keen to do. China has its own program of engagement, investment and aid to Tonga. The communist giant, which is trying to build a “blue-water navy” capable of sustained operations far from home ports, has made port calls in Tonga in recent years, Misi said.