REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. – Family converses on a bright, white sand beach as the sun starts to fall below the water, painting the sky with pinks, oranges and yellows. The smell of spices and grilled meats permeate the air and loud, cheerful, laidback music plays in the background of laughter and chatter.
A perfectly roasted pig sits amongst dishes of red rice, kelaguens, spinach cooked with coconut milk and more. Plates are stacked high with this delicious food, never leaving hands or mouths idle between the sharing of stories.
Family, food, and sunsets fill Leilani Tabor’s favorite memories of Guam, but she misses the view of the beach most. Clear turquoise water that fades to deep blue as the ocean deepens away from the sore.
On Feb. 5, 2003, at the age of 26, Tabor left her Chamorro upbringing and everything she loved to join the military. She had only left the island once before during high school. That school trip gave her a taste of what travel could be like and the opportunities that existed outside of Guam. What ensued was a life of travel and adventure.
“I wanted to explore. I had so many goals in life ... As soon I was able to get the fear of leaving out of my system, I went,” Tabor said. She also cites the quality of life of her children — Bryanna, Shanyle and Bryan — as another reason for joining the Army, wishing to provide her children the things she did not have growing up.
Tabor arrived at her first duty station in South Korea without her children. It was terrifying and lonely, but necessary. Fortunately, she was able to find other Chamorros in South Korea who served as her support system. “It was like one big family,” Tabor said.
South Korea was also where Tabor met her husband, Joffre, or Jay. Tabor served as a Soldier for three years but continued serving as an Army spouse and civilian during her husband’s 24 years of service. The family has been stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas; Yongsan, South Korea; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Camp Zama, Japan; and Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
Tabor’s kids rejoined her when she and her husband were stationed at Fort Bliss in 2005. In 2007, Jay was reassigned to Yongsan, where Tabor began her career as an Army civilian.
“Working for the Army as a civilian has been the best decision I’ve made in my life. It has afforded me the opportunity to meet great people, travel to different places around the world and financially provide for my family all while serving alongside our brave men and women in uniform,” Tabor said.
Tabor first started as a family readiness support specialist. Throughout the years, she worked her way up and now works as an administrative specialist for U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s G-3 office.
“I enjoy the work that I do for the organization and the flexibility of being able to do a variety of tasks,” Tabor said. “A lot of my work is done in the background, but I know what I do contributes to a greater mission and that in itself is amazing.”
While they lived all over, Tabor’s kids have been able to periodically visit Guam. Tabor taught her kids to speak Chamorro as they grew to keep them connected to their culture.
“It kind of faded as they got older, but every now and then I’ll try to throw in a few words,” Tabor said.
She also taught them how to cook Chamorro dishes she knew.
“My son, he loves to cook, so he’s pretty good at it. My two older ones will ask me when they want to cook it or when they’re craving for it,” Tabor said.
Tabor also found pockets of Chamorros at every duty station, providing her and her kids with a piece of home wherever the Army sent them.
She and her husband were at their last duty station at Hickam Air Force Base when one of Tabor’s aunts bought a house in Huntsville and suggested they look for a house in the area, as well. After searching for months, they finally found one, as well as jobs on Redstone Arsenal, and moved here.
While Tabor and her husband plan to stay in Huntsville, Guam is still home, Tabor said.
“It’s always home,” she said.
Tabor reflected on how her heritage has shaped her.
“The basic lifestyle that the Chamorro people lived is what molded me to be who I am today,” Tabor said. “The expensive lifestyle was not a part of our culture growing up. We lived off our land, ate the food we grew, hunted and fished. Our playground was the beach. I was taught that I should be proud of what I had in life, nothing in life was handed out, and you had to go earn it. I've learn to appreciate things more if I worked hard to get them.”