MARINE CORPS RECRUITING STATION ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Saipan, beautiful and tropical, is the largest island of the Northern Mariana Islands, an unincorporated territory of the United States in the western Pacific Ocean.
On this 44 square-mile island with approximately 48,220 people there is one active duty Marine with a very unique mission.
Sgt. Gregorio D. Comeo, a canvassing recruiter with 12th Marine Corps District, has been in Saipan for a little over two years as the only Marine recruiter on the island.
“I’m a constant presence and pretty much the only service always visible here,” said Comeo. “I have really built trust with the community, they feel at ease and like they can open up. Some of the students call me if they have a problem, and I like being here with them.”
One of the reasons he likes being there is because he’s originally from the Philippines. With a large Filipino community and the two islands in close proximity, he feels right at home.
With the tight bond he has with the community he wants to provide Saipan’s youth with options and opportunities. Finding potential Marines in Saipan is not all that difficult, said Comeo, since the youth is very self-motivated, plus “people like the uniform.”
While Comeo is the only Marine currently on the island, the people of Saipan are no strangers to the United States Marine Corps due to the Marines’ fierce fighting at the Battle of Saipan during the Pacific Campaign of World War II.
June 15, 1944, Marines landed on the beaches of the strategically significant island of Saipan against a garrison of approximately 30,000 Japanese troops. Saipan, which had been under Japanese rule since 1920, was also the nearest island to Japan. Gaining control of the island would afford the U.S. with the opportunity to establish a crucial air base for the Army’s long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers. The air base would provide the allied forces with the ability to reach the Japanese homeland and by taking the main Mariana Islands – Saipan, Tinian and Guam – the Japanese supply lines would be severed.
July 9, the American flag was raised in victory over the island of Saipan. The loss of the island’s strategic position stunned Tokyo. One Japanese admiral later commented that, “Our war was lost with the loss of Saipan.”
While the island’s location played a strategic role in the allied victory, the Marines’ continue to view Saipan as a strategic recruiting ground for qualified young men and women to join the Marine Corps. Comeo is carrying on in his predecessor’s tradition by providing the island youth with opportunities to thrive, but it’s not without its difficulties.
The poverty level in Saipan is a challenge, said Master Sgt. Jonathon Whitehouse, Pacific Assistant Recruiter Instructor for Recruiting Station Orange County. “Most kids here don’t have internet and some can’t even afford shoes.”
Most families can’t afford medical insurance either. This is problematic if an applicant is medically disqualified, even for something as simple too much wax in their ears that could require a hearing test.
When sending an applicant to process at the Military Entrance Processing Station Comeo has to send them to Guam, about a 55-minute plane ride.
“A kid on the mainland could have the consult paid for by MEPS,” said Whitehouse. “But a (simple hearing test) could hold a kid up from enlistment because a family in Saipan doesn’t have medical coverage.
“I just think it’s important for the public to understand there are people from all different climes and places who want to serve in the United States Marine Corps, and we do our best even though we’re a small branch to cover as much area as possible,” Whitehouse continued. “But things like the budget cuts impacted recruiting in the Pacific; it’s affecting the ability to build America’s military with the right people.”
Despite the obstacles, Comeo is thriving sometimes writing three and four contracts a month. His main goal while on recruiting duty is to be the recruiter of the year for his recruiting station headquartered in Orange County, Calif., and he already earned the titles of Rookie of the Month and Recruiter of the Quarter.
“Here’s a Marine who’s on one of the hardest (secondary) billets in the Marine Corps, forward deployed with little to no direct supervision, and he’s doing it on his own with his own initiative,” said Whitehouse.