Soldier draws strength from Samoan heritage
May 15, 2008
The beginning of Basic Combat Training is a time of change and uncertainty for everyone making the transition from civilian to Soldier. But when 2nd Lt. Sorepa Pakileata-Gallahar started training on Fort Jackson almost 13 years ago, everything was new to her.
For Pakileata-Gallahar, who serves as the executive officer for Company D, 369th Adjutant General Battalion, it was not only the first time away from her family, but also the first time she set foot on the American mainland, more than 6,700 miles from her home in American Samoa.
"It was (definitely) a culture shock. I guess my faith and praying ... kept me sane," she said.
Pakileata-Gallahar's parents are natives of the Kingdom of Tonga -- another Polynesian island -- but she and her four brothers were born and raised in American Samoa, an American territory halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.
Growing up, she learned to speak English, Samoan and Tongan and was influenced both by the Samoan and Tongan culture.
"It was funny, because (my parents) would speak to me in Tongan and I would understand it good, but I'd speak back in Samoan." she said.
American Samoan culture is very family oriented, Pakileata-Gallahar explained, and that aspect of her heritage set her apart early in her military career.
"My friends or battle buddies in training ... found it odd, because they were asking their parents for money while I was sending money home to my parents," she said.
She added that helping to provide for her family was one of the reasons why she enlisted in the Army after high school.
Pakileata-Gallahar's loyalty to her family went beyond just sending money, though. After her father died in 2000, she went home and relocated her mother and brothers to the United States, helping them to adjust to their new lifestyle.
"I didn't mind at all the sacrifice I had to make to help my family. Because once my father passed, I was pretty much the one who took over, took care of my family," she said.
But Polynesian hospitality encompasses more than just the immediate family.
"For example, being in the military, I would run across a lot of Polynesians like Samoans or Tongans. Automatically, the bond is there," Pakileata-Gallahar said. "You don't even need an invitation to come and eat at my house. You just come on over. You bring your family and friends, you could bring the whole crew or people at work and we wouldn't even mind it."
Pakileata-Gallahar explained that while it is not uncommon for young American Samoans to join the military, there are very few who become officers.
"That was always my ultimate goal to become an officer as I was coming up as a young Soldier," she said. "And that's why I think I disciplined myself."
Her discipline led her to obtain a bachelor's degree and to be accepted to Officer Candidate School, from which she graduated May 2007.
Pakileata-Gallahar is proud of her accomplishments in the Army, but she is equally proud of her heritage and the values it instilled in her.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, being born and raised back in Samoa, and ... knowing both cultures and having that diversity," she said.
Author's Note: Pakileata-Gallahar will be the guest speaker at Fort Jackson's Asian-Pacific Heritage Month luncheon, which will begin 11:30 a.m., May 23 at the Officers' Club.