I remember back about a thousand years ago when I first enlisted in the military. It was the spring of 1981 and I was an 18 year old high school senior, living in Scottsdale, Arizona. My dad drove me one morning to the recruiting office of the Arizona Air National Guard. My dad, a US Army veteran, pointed me to the air guard, saying, "You DON'T want to join the army, trust me". I didnt understand why at the time, but what did I know? I had seen pictures of my dad taken sometime in the mid to late 1950's. I still have one of those pictures today, framed at home. It's an old black and white photo showing my dad, a medic with the 63rd Engineer Brigade Combat Team/7th Army, posing next to a jeep as soldiers in the background erect a bailey bridge over the Rhine River in Germany. His unit, even as late in that decade as the photo was taken, was still repairing bridges damaged by allied bombing during WW2. Little did my dad know at that time what an inspiration that photo would be to me later in life.
My dad felt that I would have better accomodations and opportunites in the Air Force as opposed to the Army. He was only half right. My Air Force bretheren do live considerably better than we do in the Army. Especially in the field. While I was in Afghanistan, we lived in heated tri-walled tents. Crowded and austere, but one hell of a lot better than those poor guys did in the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions. They were living in bombed out and battle damaged buildings infested with rats, and often times had little cover from the elements. My dad used to tell me of eating WW2 era K-rations. In my day it was surplus Vietnam era C-rations while in the field. Air Force chow halls back then were more like 5 star restaurants. Hell, we even had waitresses at the Hickham Air Force Base chow hall that would clear our plates and re-fill our drinks!
So, at my dad's insitence, I joined the Air Force, and 8 days after graduating high school, left for basic training. I spent the next twelve and a half years, serving both in the Arizona and Nevada Air National Guard with the USAF Security Police. I deployed twice, once to Cairo Egypt and once to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan right after 9-11. It wasn't until I decided to re-enlist in the army in 2006 after being out for 4 years that I relaized that the Air Force had taught me nothing of what it is to be a soldier, or an NCO. There was something missing inside me. I wanted to be a part of something bigger and more important than myself. After all, there was a war on, and here was my chance to be a part of it and make a difference. Nearly twenty years as a police officer, training other police officers, had taught me alot about leadership, compassion and professionalism. The Army filled in the blanks.
Everybody has their own reasons for joining the military, whatever the branch. Those reasons are as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Some join for the benefits, the personal challenge, the promise of an education, or to stay out of jail. Others answer their country's call and join out of a sense of patriotism. Whatever the reason, few people realize what it takes in a man who is not even a citizen of this country to join because he wants to give something back to the country that gave him the promise of a better life.
Such a man is PFC Mario Nikic (pronounced Nik-eech) of the 1864th Gun Truck Company. Mario, 28, first came to the US at the age of 23 in early 2002 from Croatia, where he was born and had lived his entire life. Mario was part of a US/Croatian student and work exchange program. Mario had been a nursing student in Croatia and lived with a US host family in Montana while going to school and waiting tables at a Yellowstone Park restaurant. After 5 months, Mario returned to his native Croatia. Soon after returning home, he realized how much he missed the U.S. and the freedoms and opportunities this country offered. "It was hard living in a post war society in Croatia. I was amazed at how people in the U.S. lived free, normal lives. I wanted to live, and be able to travel and go to work without being judged for what religion I was."
It took Mario an additional two years to secure a visa to travel to the U.S. "When I came back to the U.S. in 2004, I arrived in New York with nothing more than a suticase and $30.00 in my pocket." Mario was only 23 years old. Mario said that it was important to him that if he was going to remain in the U.S., that he was going to do it right and do it legally. Mario lived in New York, Alabama, Montana and finally settled in Las Vegas, Nevada working odd jobs and paying taxes while working on his goal of eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.
I asked mario why he decided to join the Army. "I was impressed by how the Americans had helped my country. I finally enlisted in September, 2007. None of the other branches, not the Navy, Air Force or Marines could guarantee me that I would deploy antyime soon. Only the Nevada Army Guard did." What makes deploying as a U.S. soldier and facing the possiblility of perhaps having to make the ultimate sacrifice for one's country so important? "When war in Croatia broke out, I was only ten years old and too young to fight. My family's home and land was burned to the ground by the Muslims and the Serbs. The Americans were fighting our enemies now. I belonged in this war."
For Mario, the natural progression was to become a U. S. citizen. "It was my long term goal." After years of hard work and patience, Mario finally realized his goal and took his oath of citizenship on August 6th, 2009 at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Thirty seven other U.S. soldiers and sailors stood alongside him and were sworn in as new American citizens also. Major General James E. Rogers, Commander of the 1st Sustainment Command, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, adminstered the oath of citizenship, accompanied by a U.S Army honor guard and a representative from the U.S Consulate in Kuwait.
For so many of us, we forget how precious our hard won freedoms really are. We even take it for granted. Mario told me, "When I get to register to vote for the very first time, then it will sink in. This country wants and accepts me! It's a great reward."