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The Battlefield of Dreams – Part 1

I did this story in 2008 while I was a Yuchengo media fellow at the University of San Francisco-Center for the Pacific Rim. Some information may have already been superseded by more recent happenings. But it’s still a good read, methinks.

San Francisco – They were told, sometime during their entry into the U.S. Navy, that a corpsman’s life in the battlefield lasted only about 10 seconds during World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. Navy corpsmen, the equivalent of the Army’s medic, were often the first targets of the enemy because in their hands lay the fate of wounded troops.

“During a gunfight, there would always be two men standing guard with the corpsman. We are not allowed to fire our weapons unless in defense,” says Joshua Dancel, a Filipino-American who has completed a seven-month tour of duty in Fallujah, Iraq, one of the most chaotic cities when the U.S. troops first advanced into Saddam Hussein’s turf.

“Our work is to stabilize patients until their medical evacuation to the shock-trauma platoon. The Marines call us ‘docs’ because we are the doctors in the field,” he says proudly.

It is a story that Dancel, a former reporter in Manila, likes to tell friends when he talks about his “job” in the United States for the last four years.

Although widely unpopular, America’s continued presence in Iraq has opened new doors for Filipino-Americans and other immigrants in the country. Those who are hard-put for a job enter the military service, not so much out of patriotism as for the promise of an economically stable life and, for those who are not yet naturalized Americans, a quicker path to citizenship.

Instead of the average five-year wait for immigrants, those who serve in the military receive their citizenship much sooner–in Dancel’s case, after only two years of residence in the United States. While it is not a matter of policy to facilitate the citizenship applications of immigrant servicemen, it happens.

“I submitted my application to the Navy, and they took care of it. I went to Iraq January 2005; by December 2005, I was already a citizen,” says Dancel, who arrived in California in May 2003. He is expecting his father to join him from the Philippines anytime now, as his petition had also been approved.

The relatively hefty compensation offered by a job in the military, as well as the security of tenure–the United States’ Global War on Terror not likely to end anytime soon, maybe never–has enticed even the most unlikely immigrants to sign up.

Filipino ramp model and entrepreneur Jeffrey Manalang enlisted for the Army this October after years of working as a salesman in Neiman Marcus. Having left his bar/restaurant business in Pampanga four years ago, he is itching to start a food business here but needed a stable job on the side to ensure he has money coming in.

Manalang, who signed up as a reserve, will fly back to San Francisco after he finishes his training on Dec. 18. As a reserve, he is required to report for duty only twice a month but he intends to look for a full-time job in the Army’s logistics and supplies offices.

“I’m like a part-timer. I’m just after the benefits. I want to travel all over the world,” he says.

The military, he says, was a “secondary plan” for him.

While his two brothers both enlisted two years ago–one in the Navy, another in the Army–he had not been keen on joining because he wanted to check the opportunities available in his field, which is entrepreneurship. Apparently, things had not been as rosy as he had hoped.

“It’s about time to change my line of job, so I said ‘why not try the military for the sake of learning more about other cultures, discipline, experience.’… But I am a businessman at heart. That is my passion,” Manalang says.

Aside from having a side job, being in the military would give him small privileges like discounts in grocery stores, gas stations and establishments both inside and outside the bases, he says.

The perks, it seems, never run out.

Everywhere there are flyers, posters, websites brandishing the compensation available to military personnel; some advertisements brag as much as $40,000 in benefits and bonuses, and as many as 75 days of leave a year.

The starting monthly pay for a new enlistee at the bottom of the pay grade is $1,245 (It’s $2,900 to $4,500 for officers with four years of service, and up to $8,700 for the top brass), not attractive by any standards, but the benefits that come with it are what draw many immigrants, who do not have too many employment options, to the military.

Military personnel receive basic allowance for subsistence, which is meant to offset what they spend on their meals. This amounts to $202 a month for officers and $294 for enlisted members, and increases depending on the adjustment in food prices.

Servicemen also get basic allowance for housing, which depends on the state where the military members are assigned, their pay grade and whether they have dependents. This is meant to subsidize the cost of housing for military personnel who do not get government housing.

Those who live inside U.S. bases or in government housing and have no dependents receive only partial housing allowance (a measly $6 to $10 a month). Reserve personnel in active duty and those in transit without dependents receive anywhere from $316 to $1,290 while those with dependents receive an additional $565 to $1,587 a month.  Personnel living in single-type quarters receive a differential ranging from $97 to $293, but only if they are giving child support.

Those who are on assignment receive a bigger housing allowance based on the cost of housing in their location. The government, in effect, takes almost full responsibility for the housing of military members and their families.

Manalang, for example, applied to the Army when he was in San Francisco, although he has been shuttling to and from Texas, because the cost of living in San Francisco is higher, which also entitles him to a higher allowance from the Army.

Leezardo Edmilao, another Filipino American corpsman, recalls that during his assignment in Okinawa, Japan, single servicemen like him were not allowed to live outside the base. Only those who are traveling with their families are given housing allowance and the privilege to choose where they would reside during their overseas deployment.

The subsistence and housing allowances alone make up 30 percent of the compensation received by a serviceman every month, and these benefits are non-taxable, according to the Department of Defense.

Military personnel are taxed only on the basis of their basic pay and the cost-of-living allowance, but when they spend time in combat zones, their entire income during that stay becomes non-taxable as well. Even if a serviceman spends only one day in a combat zone, his entire income for that month will not be taxed.

The basic pay of military personnel is adjusted every year based on the comparative pay adjustments of private sector employees. To have a high retention rate of military personnel, the government wants to ensure salary adjustments similar to those given by the private sector.

For this and more retirement benefits including pension and educational support that can be extended to dependents in the future, Filipino Americans like Manalang endured two months of training in rifle marksmanship, combat moves and rigorous physical exercises in South Carolina, cut off from the rest of the world. Trainees are not allowed to communicate with anyone outside camp, read newspapers or watch TV. They are given only three phone calls in those two months.

After boot camp, Manalang moved on to advanced individual training in the branch of the Army he chose, which is logistics and supplies, the closest he can find to his area of interest–business.

“I conditioned my mind. My principle was, if I decide to do something, I put my mind to it,” Manalang says. He is ready to render active service, should the government require it, but says he will focus on launching a business while he works for the Army.

To be continued…

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