Pacific Islander finds place in melting pot of Army Family
Staff Sgt. Patty Gardiner, who grew up in Palau, represents the rich tapestry of diversity in today’s Army. She is a drill sergeant assigned to Bravo Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion, at Fort Lee, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – If Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month evokes thoughts about the rich and complex tapestry of colors, races and ethnicities contributing to the nation’s strength, it also should remind us the immigrant’s saga remains alive and well among the many serving in the armed forces.

Those stories – connecting us to the unique journeys of individuals and groups – are living and breathing in Soldiers such as Staff Sgt. Patty Gardiner, a member of Bravo Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion at Fort Lee. She immigrated from Palau at a young age, underwent the struggles of trying to fit into American culture, joined the Army and is now making contributions as a drill sergeant, a line of work in which she helps others through transition.

Composed of more than 300 islands covering about 180 square miles, it is challenge to find Palau on a map. The country is situated between Guam and the Philippines in an area called Micronesia. Palau’s economy consists primarily of subsistence agriculture and fishing. The government is the major employer, relying heavily on financial assistance from the United States.

Ethnically, Palau is a collection of Micronesian, Melanesian and Asian peoples who migrated there more than 3,000 years ago. Palauan is the native language.

Gardiner – whose family name is Ngirengchui – spent the first nine years of her life in Koror City, the most populous in a country of roughly 17,000 people. She remembers a simple life built around an extended family of elders, aunts, uncles and cousins.

“When I was little, everything we needed we worked for,” said the now 27-year-old. “If you needed to eat, you went fishing. That was the only choice. … We didn’t have that much living in Palau.”

Her native country did not have a welfare system and offered few services to citizens. She said her family was fortunate to own land.

“As much as I can remember, and hearing stories from my family, everything we owned was made possible due to farming taro, bananas, etc., and everything we made we sold to generate income,” she said.

Gardiner’s great-grandmother and grandmother headed a 12-member family living in a shed-like structure roughly 1,500 square feet in size. The typical day started before dawn, with Gardiner and the other children checking chickens and crops and picking the latter if necessary.

“The earlier you did the work, the easier it was because of how hot it got,” Gardiner recalled. “By 11 o’clock, you were done.”

After the chores were completed, Gardiner said the youngsters were “released to go have fun,” but it was back to work around 3 p.m.

“That’s when we – all the kids – had to make supper for family members,” she said.

The children also had to care for the elders. “We had to bathe them, make sure they were dressed,” and meet various other needs, she said.

By no means is Gardiner suggesting that she had anything less than an ideal family life. She relayed the story to underscore the point that there were desired qualities of life that Palau could not provide. Her mother, deciding to seek out better opportunities in the U.S., moved to Washington when she was four years old. Gardiner remained in the care of her grandmother.

After five years of separation, the nine-year-old joined her mother but had no idea what she would face in doing so. She was struck by life in a land much more complex than the one she knew.

“When I came to the United States, it was hard,” Gardiner said of moving to Portland, Ore., where her mother worked as a hotel housekeeper. “I was in (English classes) for about four years. It wasn’t that I was that bad at speaking English; it was that I didn’t comprehend as much as other kids.”

Gardiner’s language deficiency caused a drop in self-esteem along with decreasing opportunities for the precious commodity of peer interaction.

“I stayed to myself and really didn’t hang out with anybody,” she admitted about her growing feelings of depression. “I just wanted to be alone.”

Gardiner’s mother took notice of her daughter’s issues and eventually moved, hoping a new environment would help. First, the family relocated to Vancouver, Wash. They later moved 150 miles north to Federal Way. There, she found a school where was it was cool hanging out with peers again.

“It was diverse,” said Gardiner. “It had Samoans, Tongans, Hawaiians, Hispanics – people I got along with.”

While some of her childhood struggles were traumatic, Gardiner said she carries no baggage from the experiences. It was lost along the path to adolescence.

“I grew up,” she said in retrospect. “At that age, it wasn’t me who had the problem; it was them. They saw something different in me; something to pick on at that time.”

All of who Patty Gardiner is today – from her hard-working family life in Palau to her difficult transition as an immigrant – is being harnessed in the here and now to support troops as they train for technical skills here. In her view, drill sergeant duty is an ideal and noble means to not only provide the necessary training for those choosing to serve but the support and guidance influencing how they do so.

“When a Soldier comes to me with their hardships and issues, I don’t have that problem of (being insensitive),” said the 91B wheeled vehicle repairer. “I’m there for them … for whatever they need.”

Gardiner, however, is quick to note she is not a pushover.

“I can be stern,” she said emphatically with a deadpan look.

Upon the start of Gardiner's drill sergeant duties, it did not take long to become entrenched. The November 2021 class, her first, very much tested her acumen as a problem-solver. Pay, discipline and school issues were aplenty. There also were situations that were quite unique. For example, one Soldier was a single parent with children – a situation not documented in her enlistment package, which could be grounds for discharge. Gardiner was in uncharted waters.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said, noting she was only vaguely familiar with the individual. “I took it to my leadership (with the thought that) ‘She’s a mother – single, four kids, no medical, nothing. I said to myself, ‘Let’s go. Let’s help her.’”

The situation was eventually cleared up after some paperwork wrangling. The Soldier graduated, and months later, wrote Gardiner to say she was doing well.

“I wish I had a snapshot of the email she sent me,” said Gardiner. “She wrote, ‘Thank you for helping me and my family.’ I felt really good for helping someone in need; someone who was getting out of from where she came from to provide for her four kids. It felt good.”

That situation and others has helped Gardiner define who she is as a Soldier, she said.

“I’m more of an empathetic leader,” said the wife and mother of a toddler. “I’m somebody who’s been in their shoes; who’s been there and understands where they’re coming from. For instance, I’ve had Soldiers who needed to get naturalized (as U.S. citizens). I went through naturalization so I know the process.”

When Gardiner applied to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, she was required to complete three years of military service. Nine years later, she is still motivated and energized to serve.

“I joined to get naturalized and to get an education,” she said. “I could have just left after three years; just get what I needed and get out (of the Army).

“However, serving and seeing the cohesion and morale and bonding with people I’ve met … you don’t get that outside the military. I’ve made more friends in the military than I ever have outside of it.”

That makes the Army home, said Gardiner. It’s a place where those from a rich and complex tapestry of colors, races and ethnicities share values, contribute to common causes and make immeasurable contributions to the nation’s strength.