In July of 2016, I lost three fingernails clinging to a coral shelf in Guam. A reflected ocean swell was threatening to pull me under, and I dug in with what little leverage I could. I consider myself lucky, though, knowing how many have lost more. 20,000 men, for instance, lost their lives at the Battle of Guam in 1943. But, unlike other islands in the Pacific, the death toll didn’t stop there. It never has.
A sinister lure creeps beneath the crystalline waters of Mariana’s Islands, an armada of skeletons ground into coral, blending with the picturesque cliffs and bays. There’s a sharper contrast of light in that part of the world, embodying paradise’s paradox. A greater violence in the beauty.
I’d been brought to Guam by my old friend, Taylor Grieger. The idea was to tell a story about female helicopter pilots in the Navy. The book I was writing lacked their representation, and I was eager to hear more from women in the military. What I didn’t expect, however, was for Guam to become the story. “Crewmen deploy here to implement their training,” said Taylor. “To save lives.” Taylor was a rescue swimmer and helicopter crewman for six years. Guam produced 99% of their division’s rescues. “We get around forty to sixty a year,” he explained. “Most other squadrons get none.” By the time he flew me out to help with his story, Taylor was wrapping up a four-year commitment on Guam that left him with an outstanding record of rescues and a mouthful of bitterness. He’d also just been released from military prison.
The surplus of rescues on Guam implied a lack of coast guard or some other “first line” of search and rescue (SAR). This isn’t the case. Guam has SAR police operating on jeeps and jet skis, trained in paramedics and first-aid. So next I blamed tourism—children panicking in a rip current; foreigners unfamiliar with the terrain; kids cliff-jumping into shallow waters—but on my second day in Guam, we stumbled upon a statistics board outside of Taylor’s squadron office. It posted figures and dates like when their last “Class A” incident was, or how many DUIs the squadron had. At the bottom was a number for how many people had died.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to an acronym beside the number three. It was a hot day—every day was hot in Guam—and I had to squint through my sunglasses to read the letters.
“DOD,” said Taylor. “Deaths off Duty.”
“Like what, car accidents?”
“Yeah,” said Taylor. He winced, almost perceptibly, and wiped his sunglasses clean. “All of them died during my four years here.”
For whatever reason, maybe the heat, I didn’t catch Taylor’s hesitation. “What happened?”
“Well,” said Taylor, “two of the guys fell off of a cliff. They were drunk. But Rodgers”—he hesitated—“Rodgers was a rescue swimmer. He went spearfishing on the reef and disappeared. Usually we stop a SAR mission after two or three hours, but we spent the whole day in the air. Birds looked around the clock for his body. But that’s Guam,” he said, wiping sweat from his face. “One slip on the reef and you’re gone.”
Rodgers, as it turned out, was a veteran swimmer with more rescues than half of the squadron combined. He wouldn’t have gone spearfishing drunk; he’d seen too many times what a single misstep could do to a man, what the current could do. It was the island that killed him.
Guam’s position in the Pacific gives it intoxicating scenery, but makes it simultaneously lethal. Being perched along the edge of Mariana’s Trench, the island’s highest point, Mount Lamlam, constitutes the steepest elevation climb in the world. That's an absurd statement, given its rolling hills and elevation of just 1,332 feet, until you consider that Guam is only the summit of a much larger mountain. In fact, Guam as an island breaks the ocean's surface just below its peak. That’s why the shores have no continental shelf. The ring of coral surrounding Guam is the only thing separating cliffs and coral beach from the deepest point in the entire world.
“See that green line in the water, there?” said Taylor. We’d hiked Lamlam’s peak and were soaking in a view of the island surrounded by water. I followed Taylor’s finger to a ring of turquoise that separated the shore from a dark and violent blue. “On the other side of that,” he said, “is the steepest cliff on Earth.”
Practically every coast in the world has a continental shelf. The shelf serves as a buffer to the shoreline, descending gradually for hundreds if not thousands of yards out to sea. Water pushes inland and returns via rip currents, carving a path through the incoming waves. But when the shoreline is not gradual, water can be reflected downward instead of out, cycling underneath the incoming waves instead of cutting a path through them. The result, as you can imagine, is one hell of an undertow.
The shores of Guam feature a circular current similar to what you’d find at the bottom of a waterfall. But instead of being faced by the singular threat of drowning, there’s a razor wall of coral that the current slams you against as well. Incoming waves drag you down the coral before pulling you out so that—by the time you manage to fight your way to the surface—you’re already being dashed against the coral again.
We spent a lot of time walking along the coral shelf, mostly because there are no natural beaches in Guam and the coral shelf is the only place you can find water deeper than a few inches. “By the time we get called out to fly,” said Taylor, sweeping his foot for a safe plot to set it down, “the people have probably been missing for a few hours. The Guam police either couldn’t find them or couldn’t access where they went missing.” Taylor was always on edge walking through the water. Before I knew about Rodgers, I assumed this was because of the Pacific coral. Walking across it in knee-deep water is a lot like tiptoeing across a field of rusted glass. He stopped to say, “Whenever we get called for a search and rescue mission, it’s safe to assume they’re already dead.”
I stopped in my tracks. I even looked up from my feet to see if he was joking.
“A lot of times,” he continued, moving on, “all we find is a pool of blood. Body parts in the water. Arms, legs, a head. The bodies would’ve been dashed against the coral a hundred times already.”
Water lapped calmly against my shins and behind us, about twenty yards out to sea, ocean swells rolled easily over the coral shelf. It seemed impractical, impossible even, that such an insidious force was at work beneath the surface.
“Do you have to retrieve the bodies?” I said. I regretted asking it the moment the words left my mouth. Five years of interviewing combat veterans and there I was, asking the exact kind of questions I prided myself for avoiding. But Taylor had a laconic indifference to my blunderings.
“No,” he said. “By that point they’re considered IFOs, and we aren’t responsible for those.” He paused before lunging across a patch of sea-moss. “Besides, there are the sharks.”
We were heading back to shore after laboring in vain to find a patch of coral deep enough to submerge in. The dark blue on the other side of the coral looked provocatively inviting, and in the midst of the sauna-esque afternoon I was tempted to go and test myself against the current, against the ocean itself, just to cool off. Then I considered the same situation from a tourist’s perspective, completely ignorant to the phenomenon of Guam’s surf. Why wouldn’t I? There were no signs warning of a strong undertow, no videos on my flight explaining what happened to those who ventured too far out or slipped on the reef. What would’ve stopped me?
Movement flickered at the edge of my vision and my focus wavered at the sight of an eel swimming for my feet. It was as thick as my calf, and close enough for me to make out the line of its teeth. It ducked into the coral inches from where my foot had been—vanishing through a dip in the rock—but I’d already yelped and fallen forward. My elbows dug into coral, knees scraping sea urchins as I scrambled for shore.
“Yup,” said Taylor. “The eels’ll get you. Look out for stonefish, too. They look like rocks, but their spines are the most poisonous in the world.”
I laughed because, all together, it seemed comical. If I couldn’t step on rocks and the sea moss was notorious for housing eels and sea urchins, then there was literally nothing else to walk on besides the razor-sharp coral. I inspected the abrasions on my knees and found scratches on my hands and feet. Meanwhile, Taylor kicked out his feet and leaned back, tallboy in hand. He stared at the ocean and pointed.
“See that kid?” he said.
I looked up from my inspection and spotted a boy, maybe ten or twelve, hopping along the edge of the coral about a hundred feet out. Beyond him the ocean turned a stark blue, almost violet. I turned back to find Taylor reclined, his eyes closed behind a pair of polarized Costas. “Yup,” he said, answering my expression. “He’s a gonner.”
Taylor and I went to the same high school together. He was a grade below me and new to the swim team, but we synced up all the same. Fast-forward eight years, and we’re marveling at how easy it was to pick up where we’d left off. I arrived in Guam at midnight—a miserable 30 hours after leaving Scotland—but managed to help drain a bottle of Scotch whisky before three in the morning.
“It’s like we never left,” said Taylor, “but that’s exactly what it’s like. You know what I mean?”
I did. Partially because of the whisky, but also because I was having the same paradoxical revelation. Taylor and I had painfully different backgrounds. My parents divorced while I was in high school, but Taylor grew up in a divided family. My father funded my undergraduate studies, while at the age of seventeen Taylor was getting kicked out of his home. He joined the Navy as a rescue swimmer (one of the most competitive career options for enlisted sailors), and I went on to study a PhD in Scotland.
Eight years chasing opposite sides of the spectrum, and yet there we were in a remote corner of the world, picking up where we left off. He was still Taylor and I was still, I hoped, myself. He’d bulked up and was more confident than before, but the only noticeable difference seemed to be his impressive tolerance for alcohol. That, and his idea of an adrenaline rush, which—after years of jumping out of helicopters for a job—almost cost me my life the next week. There was a connection between us that seemed to transcend our polarized backgrounds. We were, for instance, wounded idealists: me by my travels and a near-decade of intellectual posturing in academia; and Taylor by remaining true to himself within the corrupt military complex on Guam.
Two weeks after booking my flights, Taylor was arrested for fraternization with a female officer. Despite being six months from completing his commitment (or perhaps because he was six months from completing his commitment), he got placed in military prison. He was stripped of his rank, paid half earnings for two months, and denied terminal leave. I had almost no contact with him during this period and inevitably concluded that he had wasted a thousand dollars on my flights. Then, two weeks before I was to arrive, Taylor sent me a message.
In an effort to rectify the injustice of his punishment, Taylor had written a personal and compelling letter to our congressman in Texas, Bill Flores. And it worked. After two days, he received a phone call from Flores’ lawyer and head of staff. A few days later, he was released. Flores went so far as to arrange a panel meeting with Guam’s chief naval officers for Taylor to express his disgruntlement and frustration at the Guam complex. Hours afterward, his terminal leave was granted and he was assured that his concerns would be addressed (they never were).
Taylor was explaining this to me at a Fourth of July cookout on the island. The entire squadron of crewmen had come out for barbecue and beer at an apartment complex where a few of the swimmers lived. One of Taylor’s close friends—a university graduate who played quarterback in college—was showing me how to throw a spiral. “This is exactly what happens when you’ve got a standing military,” said Taylor. He was holding a beer in each hand, and another tucked under his arm. “The divide between officers and enlisted expands. They work in separate offices, train on separate pipelines, get higher wages and better living stipends. Then, after years of being propped up on a pedestal, they start believing they’re hot shit. Look at Beau,” said Taylor, and I watched his friend launch a football almost forty yards with the flick of his wrist. “Beau went to a great school, played division one football, and graduated cum laude.”
“Did better than some of our COs,” he said.
“Than most of our COs,” said Taylor.
“And they still treat me like shit.”
“Not just that,” said Taylor, “but when they found out that Beau went to a good school, that he graduated and got all A’s, it’s like they went on the offensive. Like his education threatened their ‘authority’.”
We moved under the shade of a nearby canopy. On the other side of the pool was Tumon bay, brilliantly jade in the afternoon sun. Taylor tossed me another beer right as I opened the last one, and the three of us settled down to a pair of benches.
“But it’s not just the military,” said Beau. “It’s the whole island.”
“Take the police bikes,” said Taylor. He was a natural storyteller, presenting case studies that embodied the tone of a greater whole. “Guam’s a territory of the United States, right? But their police force is shit, so the US government sends over 10 brand-new motorcycles as a subsidy.” Amos, another crewman, tossed Taylor a pair of Miller tallboys. He cracked one open and handed it to me. I had to set down a beer just to receive the next one. “But only one of those bikes found their way to the police station. The other nine went to government officials.” I thought this was a kind of island myth, some conspiracy for venting, so I laughed. Nobody else laughed. The other guys were staring at their hands. They hadn’t just heard this story; they’d witnessed it. “It’s election season,” said Taylor. “So we’ll probably see one on the road tomorrow.” When I asked where we were going, he said, “Waterfall Valley.”
That afternoon blurred into a haze of beer and humid heat. The sun dropped over Gun Beach and I found myself sitting alone on an oceanside cliff, staring up at more stars than I’d seen in years. The beer had finished (which was shocking considering how much we brought), and Taylor came to drag me off. He wanted to wake up early for Waterfall Valley. “This isn’t a vacation,” he said. “This is work.”
Taylor was determined to expose the underbelly of Guam. On our first day, he drove me out to the governor’s house. I’d been warned about the island’s corruption, so I was expecting a mansion of impressive magnitude. Instead, we pulled up to modern-day palace perched on a coastal cliff with golden gates, an esplanade, acres of manicured lawns and monuments to match the National Mall in D.C. We slipped through the gates and explored the grounds, then drove around the rest of the island. Taylor led me up mountains and over waterfalls, along cliff edges and across military bases. He even rented a Navy fishing boat to tour me by sea, detouring only to rope-swing out of an ocean-cliff grotto. We went to bars and strip clubs, met officers and crewmen and American strippers lured over for the free accommodation and misleading island pay. Taylor even took me on a discreet tour of his squadron hanger, tossed me inside of a helicopter and told me to man the control panels. He wanted me to experience the island, all of it, and so on my last day he took me cliff jumping...
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