An enormous family of 41 are all training at the same post
Enlisting in the Army with a childhood friend or relative is a generations-old practice meant to bring familiarity and comfort to an experience fraught with stress and uncertainty.
So, does signing up with more than one recruit further ease the difficulties associated with initial military training?
The answer is an emphatic "yes" as it relates to members of a Samoan family with a decidedly large footprint at Fort Lee. There are 41 of them enrolled in various Sustainment Center of Excellence courses here, twisting the old adage "strength in numbers."
More than 30 members of an American Samoa family pose for pictures by contorting their faces and posturing for a traditional dance Nov. 8 at Thompson Hall. (U.S. Army photo by T. Anthony Bell)
"This is good for us," said 30-year-old Spc. Joseph Tauiliili, assigned to Papa Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion, and the oldest among relatives in various stages of advanced individual training. "We come from American Samoa, and we're basically thousands of miles away from home. Seeing them by my side keeps me motivated every day."
American Samoa is a U.S. territory and part of the Samoan Islands, an archipelago that also includes the independent nation of Samoa. It is located in the Pacific Ocean roughly 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and a little over 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand.
The Samoans in training here -- first, second, third, and fourth cousins -- hail from Poloa, an area near the capital city of Pago Pago. All are related to the same malietoa or chieftain. Their decision to join in close proximity was partly based on strong familial and cultural ties, said Pvt. Siiva Tuiolemotu, assigned to Whiskey Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion.
"We wanted to stick together in training," the 20-year-old said, noting her country's communal culture.
Most of the Samoans are training in the Unit Supply Specialist Course taught at the Quartermaster School. A few are enrolled in courses for other quartermaster military occupational specialties, and at least one attends the Ordnance School.
American Samoa, which has struggled economically, boasts strong traditions of military service, said Tuiolemotu. In 2014, a local Army recruiting station was the most productive in the world, according to the Samoa News website. Still, kinship is what drives most to take the oath of service.
"The thing we care about is supporting our families," she said. "If that means (sacrificing) our lives, yes, we have to fight for them."
It also is legacy. Many of the Soldiers are the latest to uphold family traditions.
"Most of my siblings are in the military, and I'm the youngest, so I wanted to follow in their footsteps," said 25-year-old Pfc. Vasait Saua, Whiskey Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion.
Pvt. Talalelei Ames said his parents also spent time in uniform, and his father is a retiree. Enduring long periods of separation while they served, he said his military ties were not strong, but that has changed since he took the oath.
"Wearing the uniform makes me feel I am more connected to them," said the 19-year-old. "I think it's pretty awesome. I never had this much fun in my life and never had this much responsibility. Now, I know what my parents went through to protect the country."
Regional map, showing the islands of American Samoa in relation to Western Samoa and other points of interest. (Image from U.S. National Park Service)
The question of whether the Samoans are a close-knit clan or a loose group of relatives was answered during a recent photo session. The Quartermaster School's Sgt. Maj. Micheal Lambert, who organized the gathering, said there were smiles, hugs, and kisses reminiscent of a family reunion. To top it all off, they postured as if performing a traditional dance complete with contorted facial expressions
"They are definitely a family," he said.
At some point during their training, the Samoans must face an inherent component of Army life -- family separation. The sheer number of Samoans wearing uniforms, however, along with the richness of Samoan culture is comforting in light of the prospect, said Tuiolemotu.
"I'm the first one who will leave the group," she said, noting a pending Fort Riley, Kansas, assignment. "I'm not worried because there are a lot of us out there. I'm bound to meet another relative somewhere. That's for sure."