by Omar Cueto
I joined the Army back in 2003 when I was still a junior in high school and living it up. My friend Alex and I always talked about cars and how we would customize them and the different body kits that we would add to the cars. It was very difficult getting into Boston University (BU), the college we wanted to go to, because we could not afford it. So we decided to join the Army and have them pay for it. After we graduated from high school, we both went off to basic training and returned back home to school just how we had planned it. Not only did the military pay for our education at BU, we were in the school that we wanted to attend. It was perfect. But everything changed in 2006 when my unit was informed that part of our regiment was taking too big a loss; the Army was going to pull us to go into Iraq and relieve the soldiers that were already there. My first thoughts were: “Why is this happening to me? Not now, it can’t be; everything is great. I did not have this planned, especially when I went into a unit that had never been deployed before.” The answer came when I faced firsthand a near death experience with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). This showed me that things happen for a reason and a purpose: I was in Iraq at that moment to experience that event.
In July 2006 my unit arrived in Iraq in a city called Anaconda. It was alive, noisy, and full of people. I had thought that a city in the desert would be quiet and people would be indoors. As I was walking the city, I saw bazaars and busses transporting civilians and soldiers places. I also saw many small buildings and a shopping center that had a Burger King and a Taco Bell. I thought how weird that was. Our military base was stationed fifty miles from Anaconda, northeast towards the Iranian border, which was only twenty minutes away from Iran. This meant that we were getting attacked from both Iran and Iraq at that time. By February 2007 we were finally able to settle the chaos that was happening around us, but at the cost of many soldiers’ lives. It wasn’t easy carrying a friend in your arms back to base.
Time went by and daily routines kept getting easier. We would get up in the morning and eat breakfast around 6 a.m., then shave, put on our gear, and make sure all our equipment was packed and ready to deploy at any given time. Once we were ready, we would climb into our vehicles (HMMWVs) and leave the base. Once we arrived on the streets of Ashraf, we performed security checks. The unit would always get tips from the locals about activity taking place in the surrounding villages. If Division suspected something out of the ordinary, the unit would have to go on foot to the area to make sure there was no threat there. All the soldiers would do this for twelve hours in the hot sun, wearing ninety-five pounds of armor that supposedly would protect us from attacks. After the sun went down, the unit headed back to base to do a reverse routine: we unpacked the vehicles, took off all our equipment and put it in cages, and went to dinner and tried to relax knowing that tomorrow the unit would be doing the same routine all over again.
2007 is when the worst day that I can ever imagine took place: what was supposed to be a regular routine mission, just patrolling the streets of Ashraf, turned into disaster. At that point, we had the patrols down to ace: we knew where everything was; we knew all the people that lived in the area, even by first name, and had many locals also come to us and bring us food and water as we were walking by. Things definitely were getting better. Then one day in July of 2007 something did not feel right. As soon as I and the other soldiers started patrolling the streets, everything seemed too calm. There were no people around us saying hello, bringing us food or water; everything seemed deserted. As we continued patrolling the streets, we approached an intersection in the most dangerous part of the village; everything could be seen from this intersection, and it was the perfect place for local people to fire shots at us. When we came to the intersection, we started looking around the area, as we had been tipped off about some Iraqi civilians being there earlier and planting something on the ground. As I and one other soldier, PFC Suarez, who was with me at the time, were coming up to a tree that was in the middle of the road, we both saw something sticking out of it. As we took a closer look, we heard ticks going off and started to walk away. I told Suarez to report it as a possible IED. Then “BOOM.” We were told that we flew over twenty feet from the tree, but it felt like two feet because of how fast it happened.
As much as I thought I did not feel anything, I came to find out later I had been hit with shrapnel. I had fallen to the ground, and as I was passing out I kept calling out “Suarez!” The very last thing I saw was PFC Suarez lying on the ground with a missing arm. When I woke up, I thought I was home and my family had come in to wake me because I had just had a bad dream. I remembered there had been many lights in my face and people calling my name. Then I realized I was sitting in the HMMWV on the way back to base, and I kept hearing people saying, “You’re good. You’re all intact, lucky s.o.b.” I could tell that I was in good hands at that moment and passed out again.
When I finally arose, I was in the medics’ quarters being asked what happened; they wanted me to see what I could remember and try to explain it step by step. I told them that all I heard was a tone and nothing else, and that I saw darkness right after I saw the lights and thought I was in a dream where people were calling out to me as if to come to them. This felt very weird, as I had seen that sort of thing in the movies all the time but never thought it was how it actually happened. I was so relieved that I had made it back to base and that my friend PFC Suarez, even though he had lost an arm, was still alive. I said to him at that time, “There is a bigger purpose that we must fulfill, which is why we are still here,” and he agreed as tears came down his face and he was just relieved to be alive as well.
Can a life be given away or taken away at any moment? I think so, as you never know when exactly it’s your time: it could be when you least suspect it or it could be that you think it’s your time and it’s not. Knowing that I could eventually go to war did not stop me from joining the Army back in 2003, when the war had just begun and everyone was getting ready to fight in a war we had no idea about. Looking back at the near-death experience, I think: “What if I had been at home at that time and not in the war? How would things have played out differently? Would I have experienced a near-death event or actually died?” I always live my life and will continue to live my life believing “things happen for a purpose and a reason,” which means that I was in Iraq to have the near-death experience and become a better man. Experiencing the near-death event not only changed me as a man but also taught me not to take things for granted and actually appreciate my life. This was the essence I needed to learn a long time ago when I was in high school, struggling to make it, and coming across the military changed my way of living. I could have decided to continue on the same road I was on, and not attend college, and been like the majority of the kids in my culture who barely graduate from high school. I’m proud I chose to follow this path. “Things happen for a purpose and a reason” always, no matter who you are.