PALAU — U.S troops have been rotating in and out of a small Southeast Asian island nation for more than 40 years, and on Friday they got their inaugural visit by a Pentagon boss.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper toured a civil affairs compound and met with top government officials as part of the first-ever visit by a U.S. SECDEF, though the relationship between Palau and the military dates back decades.
“There are so many Palauans who serve in the American armed forces, at a much higher rate than any state in the United States,” Esper said.
A country of more than 300 island and roughly 20,000 residents, about 500 of its citizens serve in the U.S. military, more than twice the rate of American citizens, which is currently about 1 percent.
This is made possible by a 1994 Compact of Free Association, which made Palau a democratic republic, but also guarantees not only a diplomatic and economic relationship (they use the U.S. dollar) but its defense by American troops.
Several dozen troops are deployed to Palau at any given time, for a range of missions. Task Force Oceania currently has Hawaii-based Army reservists assigned to the U.S. embassy there, including a civil affairs team and Palauan natives.
“We are grateful to the people of Palau for their enduring contributions to the United States armed forces, and we honor those who laid down their lives in defense of both of our nations.”
Task Force Koa Moana, a yearly event, is underway with troops from I Marine Expeditionary Force embarked on the expeditionary fast-transport ship City of Bismarck, who manned the rails Friday as Esper and his team motored out to the site of a crashed World War II-era TMB Avenger, where he laid a wreath with President Thomas Remengesau.
But the longest-standing troop presence in the country belongs to Navy construction teams, Seabees, who have been rotating in as the13-man Civic Action Team Palau for decades.
Based at Camp Katuu ― literally, Palauan for “cat” ― they help build local projects like playgrounds, but also offer free repairs for broken-down vehicles, during six-month rotations.
They also run an apprenticeship program, with recruits Palauan locals, pays them minimum wage for a year and gets them certified in construction specialties like carpentry, welding and machinery repair.
In recent years, CAT Palau has expanded to include Army and Air Force engineering/construction units.
Their presence is more important now than ever, Esper said, as China continues it’s “destabilizing activities in the region,” which include not only flexing military might in Southeast Asia, but also economic influence in the form of funding for struggling economies.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT