By Army Sgt. Alun Thomas
Feb. 17, 2010 - Internal strife that tore Colombia apart in the 1990s affected the lives of many, including a 15-year-old now deployed here as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. After his father was brutally murdered by extremist guerillas in 1993, Alexander Tarazona set off on a rapid new path that would take him from the Colombian army to what was then Czechoslovakia and finally to his second military destination; the U.S. Army.
The Bucamaranga, Colombia, native -- who works in U.S. Division Center as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter mechanic in the 1st Cavalry Division's Company D, 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade -- said his life had been normal prior to his father's death, an event that changed his life forever.
"We were very poor, but we were a happy family and very stable," Tarazona, 31, said. "But that was the first major thing that happened to me in my life. [The army] came and told my mother he was dead."
Tarazona said his father, who worked for the Colombian army as a contracted truck driver, was murdered by a group of guerillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
"He went off post in his truck, and something happened [to the truck]. He was fixing the tire, and he got shot in the head," Tarazona said. "My childhood ended there, because my mother was alone. It was a hard moment in my life."
Tarazona, along with his two brothers and their mother, struggled after his father's death, but he said he excelled at high school, graduating with honors before joining the Colombian army to fulfill his year of national service.
"When I joined the Colombian army, I was a kid. ... There was a big difference in the way soldiers were treated [compared to the U.S. Army]," he said. "For example, we went to the range to shoot and, for each one of the 20 rounds you missed, you were hit with a stick. That will remind you that you shouldn't waste any rounds. Everything was mass punishment."
The country was in a state of turmoil in 1995, Tarazona said.
"In the beginning, it was a little bit tough, because at that moment in our history we had the guerillas that were at the height of their powers and were very active," Tarazona explained.
Because infantry units usually consisted of soldiers who didn't have a high school education, Tarazona said, he thought his excellent school record would have resulted in a different specialty.
"What happened to me was the army was short on people, so they sent me to an infantry unit," he continued. "My unit was something close to the Special Forces. ... I was trained as a sniper and how to patrol."
The threat from the guerillas was an everyday reality, and after one close encounter with the enemy, Tarazona said, he decided he needed a new start in his life.
"One day on a patrol, the guerillas stole one of our trucks. We found it, and we were happy because it was our truck for getting food and everything," Tarazona said. "We checked under the truck, and there was a bomb waiting for us. That was the moment which made me think about doing something else with my life."
Tarazona immediately sought a new direction. Once his Army obligation expired, he applied for a scholarship overseas to obtain a better education, eventually settling in Czechoslovakia, where he would spend eight years before finally earning a degree in nutrition in 2003.
"The day after I got my diploma, I was on a plane back to Colombia," Tarazona said. "It was very hard for me in Czechoslovakia. The price I paid for that was very high -- eight years of my life."
While in Europe, Tarazona met his wife, Veronica, over the Internet, a relationship that would lead to him to the United States.
Tarazona said Veronica, who lived in Miami, wanted him to move to the United States. To make this easier, she enlisted in the Army, which convinced U.S. embassy officials in Colombia to give Tarazona a visa.
"I was about to be denied for the visa until my wife showed them her military ID card," Tarazona continued. "We got married in Miami, and my wife was stationed at Fort Hood [in Texas]. ... Then she had to deploy."
Tarazona then fulfilled a promise he had made before he and Veronica were married to enlist in the Army.
Following his initial training, he was assigned to 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and eventually joined by his wife, both deploying to Iraq together.
Although Veronica since has left the Army, Tarazona said, he is happy with the way things have worked out.
"My standard of living is a lot higher now, including my family back in Colombia," Tarazona said. "I've been fortunate."
(Army Sgt. Alun Thomas serves in U.S. Division Center with the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Air Cavalry Brigade.)