By Petty Officer 1st Class R. David Valdez
VAVA’U, Tonga – U.S. Navy Capt. Jesse Wilson, Commander, Destroyer Squadron 23 and mission commander of Pacific Partnership 2011, discussed the impact of the American presence in Tonga and the future of Pacific Partnership with the Honorable Chief Fotu, chief of estate in Vava’u.
“It’s important to develop a clear understanding of how our hosts in Tonga, and the other host nations for this year’s iteration of Pacific Partnership, perceive the actions of the partner nations, not just in terms of what we are doing with the people, but how we engage in humanitarian assistance,” Wilson said. “Engaging local leaders, like the Honorable Chief Fotu, give us an opportunity to be more responsive in meeting their interests, and it will be part of our mission as ‘Conversations with the Pacific Partnership Region.’”
Wilson engaged Fotu with a few questions about his upbringing and his initial experiences with Americans during World War II. Fotu replied in Tongan, allowing the Rev. Paula Latu to translate for him.
“When the Americans came to Tonga,” Fotu said, “I was only eight years old, but that was the first time I’d ever seen an airplane. Everything changed from that time. The Americans came to Tonga to protect us and provide us with security. Even as children, we were taught to emulate the Americans. I remember carrying a big stick like a rifle, so I could help to protect my family like the Americans were protecting Tonga.”
Fotu and Wilson continued to speak about what the current impression was of Americans and the partner nations. Fotu explained that he was pleased to see that the U.S. is dedicated to the principle of diversity because his grandson and heir wants to become an officer in the U.S. military.
“The name of America is security,” he said. “The American people are the best people in the world, because they come here to protect us with their lives.
During the course of the conversation, there was a brief interruption by a local church group who wished to share a Palm Sunday feast with the people of Pacific Partnership. They loaded the table with roasted pigs, chickens, fish, octopus, candy, fruit, chips and drinks. Wilson said a few words of thanks to the people who provided the banquet-style presentation of food and welcome.
Upon returning to the initial conversation, Wilson learned that Tongans intentionally provide more food than the available guests can eat, so the leftovers can be given to the needy.
Wilson asked what Fotu would like to see for future Pacific Partnership missions coming to Tonga. Fotu explained that the sense of community among Tongans doesn’t stop at the shores of Tonga.
“As Tongans, when we see other Tongans come back to help serve our people and our island, it is a blessing,” he said.
At the opening ceremony for the Tongan phase of Pacific Partnership, Wilson and other representatives of the partner nations were treated to a demonstration of Tongan music and dancing at a local high school. Fotu took the opportunity to say a few words to the students. Wilson asked what his message was to the children, as the speech was delivered in Tongan.
“Our presentation was not entertainment,” Fotu began. “We wanted to show you how we live. My words to the children were meant to inspire them to take the American presence in Tonga as motivation for their education because education is the foundation of the future.”
At the end of the discussion, Fotu shared his sentimentality for the United States.
“The Americans are not just coming to provide help to Tonga, but they are providing aid to the world,” he said.
Following the interview, Wilson presented Fotu a Pacific Partnership 2011 coin for his grandson and a plaque in appreciation. Latu concluded the meeting with a prayer.
Pacific Partnership is a five-month humanitarian assistance initiative that will make port visits to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and the Federated States of Micronesia, following the current mission in Tonga.