By Army Sgt. David Hodge
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 17, 2008 - A former war refugee traveled across countries and continents in search of a better life -- a remarkable journey that ended in the United States when he became a U.S. citizen and a soldier. Army Spc. Samuel Ladu, 20, a translator with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, grew up in Sudan during the country's second civil war, and vividly remembers his life during that time.
"It was miserable because of the war," Ladu said. "We were living to survive. From day to day, if we woke up in the morning, we thanked God."
Ladu called a small farming community on the fringes of Juba, Sudan, his home for about 20 years. Ladu and his family were surrounded by two fighting factions.
"In the city, there were bombings every day," Ladu said.
Ladu's father died when he was 6. Soon after, his older brother, Charles, developed glaucoma. Two unsuccessful surgeries by underqualified doctors left Charles blind for life, Ladu said.
This left Ladu and his mother to care for Charles in a war-torn area with scarce food and money. His opportunity to leave Sudan came shortly after receiving a blessing from his mother to move away and search for a better life.
Ladu led Charles and his cousin to neighboring Ethiopia in search of treatments and an education. He continued his high school education there while living on rations of beans and corn provided by shelters and refugee camps. Surviving in Ethiopia became more difficult as time passed.
"While I was in Ethiopia, I considered going back to Sudan," he explained. "I couldn't go through with it, though. In Ethiopia, I didn't talk to anyone, and I didn't have any food to eat, so life became so difficult."
At one point, he said, he realized anything could happen to him and his family while at the camp, so he took a chance and went to Kenya with a small amount of money.
"When I went to Kenya, I assumed a refugee status at a camp on the Kenya and Somalia border," Ladu said.
Disease and famine plagued the camp. Ladu said he believes he was lucky to have stayed only four months before his processing became complete, and he boarded an aircraft to the United States.
"Some people stay for years in the camps, and even die there waiting to get out," he said.
Arriving in New York in 1994, Ladu immediately became eligible for work and other benefits, and he moved across the country to San Diego. He struggled to find steady work there, often spending up to 80 percent of his wages toward rent.
While he was working at a convenience store as a cashier, armed criminals robbed Ladu at gunpoint on three separate occasions. The local police caught the criminals each time. His employer offered him an additional $4 an hour to remain with the store, but he decided against the raise.
"I decided I had better move on before I ended up getting hurt," Ladu said.
He moved to Rochester, Minn., in 1996, where he attended welding school and worked as a welder at a factory. He eventually flew his girlfriend and brother to the United States to live with him.
Ladu said that since he was a child, he often envisioned becoming a soldier to serve his country. In fact, he attempted to join the Army three times, but was not proficient enough in the English language.
In March 2007, he received his chance when he enlisted in the Army Reserve and attended advanced individual training at Fort Jackson, S.C., to become a translator.
"When I look at my life, I see that the U.S. has done a lot for me," Ladu said. "They brought me from Africa and gave me many opportunities. I asked myself what I could do to pay the government back, so I decided to join the Army."
Upon completion of AIT, he immediately deployed to Iraq and arrived here in early August. Shortly after his arrival, he bumped into Bol Madut, a linguist with 4th Infantry Division's Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. The two immediately recognized each other from middle school in Sudan.
Madut said he heard that a person from Sudan was coming to work, and he was surprised to find out it was his childhood friend.
"In Sudan, Ladu was a very religious man," Madut said. "He carried a Bible around with him all the time, trying to spread the word of Christianity. When I saw him in Iraq, I asked him where his Bible was."
Ladu currently translates for Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Bobb, the senior enlisted leader for the 1st BCT. His duties include providing assessments on culture, politics and significant information released by the Iraqi media before each patrol.
"Ladu is very informative, and he isn't from Iraq, so we know his assessment is impartial to the different religious groups," said Army Spc. Sam Krasnican, an infantryman from Bloomington, Ill., assigned to the personnel security detachment. "He is a major asset to the Army and the unit."
Following his deployment, Ladu said, he plans to spend time with his wife, six children and his brother, Charles, who went on to earn bachelor's degrees in international relations and political science.
He also plans to fly his ill mother to the United States for treatment.
"When I was younger, I would point out airplanes flying in the sky and tell my mother that someday she will be sitting next to me flying to the U.S.," Ladu said.
(Army Sgt. David Hodge serves in the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)