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Tongan Marines join U.S. Marines in Iraq

13 Jul 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

U.S. Marines here with 1st Marine Division recently welcomed "friendly islanders" from Tonga with a warm "malo e leielei."

Forty-five Tongan Royal Marines traveled from their tiny South Pacific island in order to support the division's security and stabilization mission in Iraq. They arrived earlier this month and are currently planning to stay for a six-month tour before heading home.

This trip marks the first peacekeeping deployment for the Tongan Defense Service outside of the South Pacific.

"All of my men volunteered to come to Iraq," said Tongan Capt. Maama Misi, platoon commander. "Our Marine Corps is very small and everyone wanted to come out here, but we could only bring a certain number."

The country of Tonga - the only monarchy in the Pacific - is four times the size of Washington D.C., and is home to about 110,000 residents. The Tongan Royal Marines Corps is made up of a few hundred people, so the group here makes up a large chunk of the defense force.

The Royal Marines who were selected hold a variety of billets. Most are infantrymen, but a few serve as mechanics, communications technicians and welders.

All of the Tongans make up part of the camp's guard force, responsible for providing internal and external security here.

"Since they got here, the Tongans have been doing the exact same duties as the U.S. Marines," explained Staff Sgt. Kenneth D. Douglas, sergeant of the guard. "They man the towers, rove around the camp and do escort duty. They work the same hours as us and sweat the same sweat."

Before arriving here, the Tongans spent the last year training for the mission.

"We trained for a long time before leaving Tonga," Misi explained. "We focused on conventional warfare - things every Marine knows."

Misi's men learned the intricacies of urban warfare, combat patrols, convoy security and entry control point operations.

They also spent some time in Hawaii for an exercise with U.S. Marines.

Upon arriving to the Middle East, the Royal Marines received training from U.S. Marines in Kuwait. They learned weapons handling procedures and immediate action drills.

"This is new for us," Misi said. "We've trained to do these missions, but this is the first time we've done them in a real combat environment."

Tongan Cpl. Jili Paama said he volunteered to come to Iraq despite the dangers because he wanted to support the Coalition while it helps to bring peace and security to the war-torn country.

This is his second time working with American Marines.

"I think we all wanted to come to help the U.S. Marines," Paama said. "I always enjoy working with them."

Both Misi and Paama described the U.S. Marines as friendly and helpful.

"They've really supported us well and made us feel welcome," Paama explained. "I've made quite a few friends already."

Still, the language barrier has proven to be an obstacle for both Marine forces. Although most of the Tongans understand English, some are not as fluent as others.

"Some of us speak English very well and others can understand what is said but have a hard time speaking English," Misi explained. "We try to get those men to communicate with the U.S. Marines as much as possible to improve their communication skills."

For the most part, Douglas said all of the Marines seem to be adjusting well even if they don't always understand each other.

"The Marines have been talking to one another and getting to know each other," he said. "That definitely has helped to break any language barrier.  I think they've found that they have the same habits, the same likes and that they're really not that much different."

He praised the Tongans for volunteering to support the 1st Marine Division.

"They've performed very well so far," Douglas added.  "Everything we've asked them to do they've done. They're very attentive and take their jobs seriously."

Misi has few goals for his men during their deployment here.

"I want my Marines to stay alive and gain as much experience as they can," he said.