By Elizabeth M. CollinsDecember 16, 2009
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 16, 2009) -- An Army family from Fort Stewart, Ga., will play host to five Pacific islanders Dec. 20 on the fifth and final episode of the Travel Channel's "Meet the Natives: USA" at 10 p.m. EST.
The show follows five Vanuatu tribesmen from the remote South Pacific Island of Tanna and their quest to understand American culture and spread a message of peace, as well as find an American servicemember they call "Tom Navy" who helped their island during World War II.
"Tom Navy...was an African-American serviceman back in World War II," said the show's executive producer Charlie Parsons. My guess is somebody probably introduced himself as 'I'm Tom from the Navy,' and his name turned into Tom Navy, passed down through the generations on the island."
During their stay at Fort Stewart, Staff Sgt. Steve Shepard, Sgt. Tara Shepard and their three children helped the ambassadors experience a training simulator, physical training, the post museum, a homecoming, shopping at the post exchange and military-style haircuts.
"The family was fantastic and they gave us permission to shoot there," Parsons explained. "The timing was right and everything just came together. We're thrilled with what we captured there. It's the last episode of that series and again that quest for Tom Navy, and a military base, the whole thing, so it made sense to end the series. We wanted to try to bring closure to the story arc we started from the first episode. It's their motivation for making this trip."
One of the first stops on Fort Stewart was the training simulator to practice shooting, a strange and unsettling experience for the tribesmen, whose culture had given up weapons in the time of their grandfathers.
"These kinds of games will lead them to a war," observed Chief Mangau, with the simple common sense the tribesmen portrayed throughout the trip.
"They really did not like messing with weapons; they were on a mission of peace," said Shepard, who is back in Iraq now with the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, and responded through e-mail. "I tried to express the importance of wars and why we fight them. The Army is needed, like rules are needed: without either, this world would be in chaos."
Like a good noncommissioned officer, "I had to put them at ease and let them know, 'Nothing's going to happen to you while you're under my watch,'" Shepard explained during a "Reflections" episode set to follow the Fort Stewart episode Sunday at 11 p.m. EST.
In both Shepard and Parsons' favorite scene, Shepard gives the tribesmen dog tags - dog tags are an important artifact from Tom Navy on Tanna - and Maj. Gen. Tony Cuculo, commander of the 3rd Inf. Div., awards the World War II and Asiatic Pacific campaign medals to Mangau, in honor of his father's assistance against the Japanese. Mangau and his fellow ambassadors reciprocated with a traditional tribal dance.
"It was very heartfelt, and for the chief to almost cry was priceless," wrote Shepard. "It was like closing a chapter in his life. I really enjoyed their tribal dance; the Soldiers participated and the evening was very delightful."
"It was very symbolic, very powerful for them and the viewer," added Parsons. "I then loved the part when they got home and Chief Mangau presented the medals to his father, the supreme chief, who I'm sad to report has passed away in the meantime. But that moment was - I just got a shiver thinking about it. The supreme chief, sitting down, frail, the only living guy who remembers Tom Navy, who sent them on this mission...to have his son return and put these medals around his neck and tell him the story, the chief was so proud."
The Shepard family is also changed forever, both husband and wife said in the "Reflections" episode, explaining that they were touched by the constant love and support and generosity of spirit the tribesman not only talked about, but showed every day.
"I think their message got across to the families that they visited, because it was not so much in what they said, it was in what they did, and what they did is they just showed love. You can say 'I love you' all day long ... but yet you go out there and do things that's not loveable," said Shepard.
"Maybe we should do more hugging," his wife Tara said later, inspired by the example of Kuai, "The Happy Man," who constantly brightened her day with hugs.