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Toloai Sosene, a native of American Samoa, says every Samoan tattoo tells a story. Not many English words are derived from the Polynesian languages, but historians believe that tattoo originated from the word tatau.
Before Christian missionaries came to their islands in the early 1800s, Samoans had no written language, Sosene said. Culture, history and myths were all depicted by body art.
Perhaps Sosene, along with friends Siatuvai Ioane and Sililo Atonio, should each get a new tattoo; something that would tell of how Ioane didnt expect to join the military as a teenager, or see two of his childhood friends again after they graduated high school. And he said he never expected to play volleyball with them while serving in the Army.
As the intramural volleyball season concluded Wednesday, the three Soldiers who grew up playing on the same school teams took the court perhaps for one final time together.
Im just fortunate enough to be stationed here, Atonio said. This is my first time seeing (Ioane) since high school.
Its very rare to see guys who grew up together 15 or 20 years later. It brings back memories. Its a blessing. Im happy that were all here playing the game that we love.
The trio each took different paths, but now all of them have gone through Fort Benning.
Ioane is the most experienced player of the three, having started at age 4. Sosene and Atonio picked up the game in grade school. The three played together for the Leone High School Lions.
Ioane attended Chaminade University in Honolulu before joining the Army reserves. He was stationed at Fort Knox in 2006 and has been at Fort Benning with the 11th Engineer Battalion since 2008. He said he expects to leave next spring.
Sosene and Atonio, meanwhile, both joined the Army right after high school. Atonio has been to Fort Knox, K.Y., twice, Iraq twice, Fort Stewart, Ga., twice, and Germany and Kosovo before arriving at Fort Benning a year ago. Sosene has been to Fort Knox twice, Fort Riley, Kan., twice, South Korea, Alaska and said he is leaving again for Fort Riley this month.
Sosene said the trio will never forget their origins. Playing intramural volleyball at Fort Benning might be spoiling him, he said.
For example, wearing shoes while playing volleyball is a luxury compared to Samoan culture. If he went back home and showed up wearing shoes at a court, natives would immediately know he had been to America, he said.
He said he remembered while growing up, his friend Atonio had no shoes; he couldnt afford them. Hell never forget that because of the high school Thanksgiving turkey run.
Atonio had volunteered to coordinate the event, but when one person didnt show up for the race, he took his place and won barefoot, he said.
I was upset because he didnt want to share the turkey, Sosene said.
Indeed, the volleyball that Americans know is much different in Samoa, the players said. And just because American Samoa is an island, doesnt just mean they play on the beach; in fact, its played just about everywhere.
On every corner there is a volleyball net and theres always someone playing, Atonio said.
Ioane said volleyball is one of American Samoas three major sports the other two being football and rugby. However, because of their size, most athletes pursue football or rugby professionally.
Were very athletic, he said. Were big people. The chances of you playing those sports and getting pretty good at them are good.
Most Samoans end up being offensive or defensive linemen, he said.
Thats what most Samoans play. Its very rare to see a Troy Palamalu, he said.
Family at the center All Samoans are, by nature, family, the players said. But Ioane, Atonio and Sosene and their Families have become close over the past few months.
You probably noticed them if you were at any intramural volleyball match this summer. They likely would have been the most enthusiastic spectators.
Ioane and his wife, Pele, have a daughter, Siena; Atonio and his wife, Carol, have three daughters Sevia, Keniva and Elena while Sosene and his wife, Elizabeth, have a son, Ladaniann.
We hang out almost every weekend together, Ioane said. Its very family-oriented. Everyone is related even if you come to the States, and you see another Samoan. Its just in us.
Those traditions proved to be early training ground for joining the Army, Sosene said. Ioane joined because it was traditional for men in his family to join the military. Atonio and Sosene said they had wanted to join since they were boys as they played with sticks, pretending they were rifles. Samoans grow up in a culture of discipline, which means obeying orders is nothing new to them.
It doesnt matter what your rank is, Sosene said. When we get together as a community, we pay respect to elders. Our success in the Army comes from our culture. Growing up, we were used to serving and taking orders. We do what elders tell us to do and we never say anything back.
On Wednesday, Ioane won his third consecutive Commanders Cup Postseason Volleyball Tournament and was easily the teams most valuable player hitting four aces, 11 kills and two blocks in a five-set match against MEDDAC.
Although he didnt get the chance to play the final against his friends Atonio and Sosene play for 3rd Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, which lost to MEDDAC in the play-in game he left Smith Fitness Center with the most memorable of those three championships. And, as another example of family unity, Atonio and Sosene stayed after their loss two hours earlier to celebrate with him.
It was very important for us to grow up around family, Ioane said. Theyre always there for you.