Friday, December 5, 2008

Paralegal Specialist Travels Long, Hard Road to Iraq

by Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
National Guard Bureau

Bombs, violence and death were part of Titus Abure’s boyhood. He fled the Republic of the Sudan as a 16-year-old refugee. His father died in Sudan’s civil war.

So this Army National Guard specialist says an Iraq deployment isn’t much of a hardship.

“I love it,” he said here in October. “I contributed to the success of the mission.”

Abure has fulfilled Freedom of Information Act requests for the XVIII Airborne Division, worked with the Iraqi Security Forces on legal issues surrounding detainees and interpreted and coached Arabic as needed. He is a paralegal specialist with the Nebraska National Guard’s 110th Multifunctional Medical Battalion here.

It’s all a long way from Torit, in the Eastern Equatoria province of southern Sudan in Northern Africa, where Abure was born.

“The majority of our Soldiers – probably 95 percent – come from rural Nebraska,” said the 110th MMB’s Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Davids. “Spc. Abure has been a benefit by being able to understand how things happen in other places around the world – his background of multiple languages, of coming from the Sudan and moving around Africa and coming to the United States. He’s very humble about it.”

Ever since Basic Combat Training, Abure has encouraged other Soldiers to keep hardship in perspective. “When people sometimes complain of little things, I ask, ‘How many times have you taken a shower? How many times have you eaten MREs? Have you ever thought there are guys here who in a week don’t take a shower?’ It’s good to be able to bring the other side of the story to people, so they are able to look within themselves,” he said.

They don’t know the half of Abure’s story.

Sudan

Much of Sudan remains an agricultural economy, accounting for a third of its gross domestic product and 80 percent of jobs. “Everybody still depends on agriculture,” Abure said. “So my parents were farmers.”

They raised cows and grew vegetables.

As an agrarian society, Abure recalled, “They still have the family cohesion – that extended family outlook. You still look at things in terms of, ‘What’s my relations to my family?’ as opposed to, ‘What’s good for me?’ ”

The 41-year-old still misses Sudan. “A whole lot. The weather. The kind of activities we used to do back home: running, hunting, swimming in the river.”

But violence was a daily routine; civil war racked Sudan since its 1956 independence from Britain. “I saw people die,” Abure said. “I had friends who were killed.”

Education was a way out

“I warn you …”

“The commander of the rebels came to my family and asked my father, ‘Is Titus still going to school?’ Abure recalled.

“Please talk to him,” his father said.

Abure remembers the rebel commander’s advice: “I warn you to leave if you still want to go to school, because in a month or two, if you are still here, I will tell your father you are not going, because the roads are going to be bad. We will mine the roads. The probability of survival is going to be really reduced. If you want to go, this is the time.’”

He left the next day. Only the commander and his parents knew; he did not say goodbye to his extended family. He still didn’t know if the school was even open.

He left at 5 a.m. on a 200-truck rebel convoy that was ambushed twice – resulting in deaths and destroyed vehicles – during a three-day, 84-mile, trek to safety.
He made his way to Kenya, on Sudan’s southern border, where he found the Catholic missionary school open. He studied there four years.

At one point, Abure’s family links to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army were a lifesaver. The young man dissuaded rebels from attacking his school, arguing that the missionary institution was not associated with the government.

He later worked in a refugee camp in Kenya as a community leader and high school teacher. He helped distribute United Nations food aid, and he helped refugees apply for asylum in the United States – knowledge that would eventually take him down the same path.

He made it to the United States at 25.

Late-in-life enlistee

In California, Abure assembled electronics. In Tennessee, he worked for a publisher of inspirational books and for a tool manufacturer who, finding him a quick study, asked him to teach coworkers about wiring and reconditioning tools.

Now, education was a way up: Abure went back to school, teaching to earn extra money and earning a criminal justice and psychology degree.

He worked in the corrections system as a corrections officer – a civilian-acquired skill that would later enhance his paralegal specialty in the National Guard.

He lived in Connecticut and Georgia. He married, and the couple has one five-year-old son. Omaha, Neb., is now home.

“I’ve benefited” from immigrating to the United States, Abure said. “If I had remained in Sudan, I might not have gone to college, because of being a Southerner – even if you pass [an entrance exam], you rarely find yourself going to college. That’s why we had the war.”

Abure is one of a group of late-in-life enlistees who have joined the National Guard since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Attracted by the notion of serving his adopted country and by the training, educational benefits and paralegal military occupational specialty, he signed up at 38.

Abure’s recruiter told him he might deploy. “Yes, I’ll be ready to do that,” Abure remembered telling him. “You are there to serve the country should anything happen, and at the same time you still keep your civilian life,” he said of why he picked the Guard.

Abure’s story is unusual, but Davids, the 110th MMB command sergeant major, said his Soldier is by no means unique in the National Guard.

Deployment diversity

“Across the board, the National Guard is such a well-rounded organization,” Davids said

“We as leaders of the National Guard have learned over time to use those assets to our advantage. We learn who’s in the unit that can do what, whether they’re a carpenter or
whether they can build things or fix things, program, teach, talk – it’s phenomenal.

“In our task force alone, we have everything from lawyers to construction workers to computer programmers, to Web developers. We have enlisted Soldiers that are nurses. We have pilots. I’m an electrician back home. One of the first things I did here in theater was to help our brigade wire in new uninterruptible power supplies to keep the phones up and running in the event of power failure.”

It’s not a one-way street: Abure said he has gained as much as he has given during his first deployment.

“I have gained a wealth of knowledge,” he said. “A whole lot of experience.” His knowledge of administrative, fiscal and criminal law has grown. “I could not have done that without this deployment.”

He did not find the Iraq he expected before he came.

Different perspective

Abure’s idea of what Iraq would be like came from what he had seen and read in the media. “Listening to the news, you see bombs every day,” he said. “It’s selective. If there’s no violence, [there’s] no news. You look at it and you think things are really bad, because you are not there. The concept [of deploying] was horrible.”

But the Iraq Abure experienced defied his expectations. Violence was declining; reconstruction was increasing; and the Iraqi government, military and police were improving.

“When I came here, I was like, ‘What’s going on?’,” Abure said. “Very different from what I expected. No big deal.”

From his perspective as a childhood refugee, Iraq didn’t seem like a country at war. “For me, having been in a country with a war, where I’ve seen all kinds of bombs, it’s no surprise,” he said. Since he enlisted, Abure said he’s been struck by how Soldiers pull together. “It is family-oriented,” he said of the Guard. Fellow Soldiers have reached out to him, inviting him to share their civilian lives.

That “taking care of Soldiers” has continued with Abure’s deployment. His mother still lives in Torit, and Abure was delighted when he discovered he could make morale calls from here to talk with her. “They gave me a lot of phone cards,” he said. “ ‘Please, you need to talk to your family. You need to talk to your mom.’ The service I received was extraordinary.” Abure exudes gratitude. “It’s a beauty,” he said of his life. “It’s a beauty. At times, the life you receive is hard. But that hardship trains you to become a better person. You tend to appreciate certain things.”

Sometimes, though, Abure wonders if his fellow Americans appreciate what we have. “Just the other day we were talking about some states paying students to go to school,” he said. “Where do you find in the world where a state or a government pays students so they can go to school, so they can go to learn? When I look at it, it seems people don’t even understand the importance of education in the first place.”

And why would this not seem strange to a man whose escape from violence hinged on the answer to a rebel commander’s question, “Is Titus still going to school?” For this Citizen-Soldier, education was no luxury: It was the difference between life and death.

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