When Donald Trump threatens to make it much, much harder for people from war-torn countries to seek refuge and a new life in the United States, he might think about Sgt. Brima Kamara.
Kamara is an immigrant who fled a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. He is also a member of the U.S. Army.
For such a small country, Sierra Leone suffered a particularly horrifying, drawn-out civil war. Rape and sexual slavery, murder and looting, concentration camps, feuding militias, the use of child soldiers, the mutilation of civilians by amputating hands, feet and other body parts: the West African nation faced it all between 1991 and 2002. At least 50,000 people died; 2 million survivors ― half the population ― fled as refugees.
“It was brutal, horrible,” Kamara told me recently at Fort Hood, Texas, where he is a combat engineer, or sapper, attached to the 1st Cavalry Division. “I experienced one or two times on the verge of being killed, a terrible experience.” Careful not to exaggerate, he adds, “But not too bad.”
In 1999, Kamara was 18 and living in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, when he happened upon two American military personnel ― U.S. Army Green Berets, he thinks ― who made an immediate impression. They were not the slovenly, ill-trained marauders who filled some of the local militias. They were disciplined, polite, professional and friendly.
“These guys were true examples of what a military force is supposed to be,” Kamara said. “I have had a lot of military people around. When you look at the kind of military we have in Africa, the kind of things you see them doing, and the U.S. military ― a big difference.”
From the moment he met those American soldiers, Kamara’s dream was to become just like them.
It Took 10 Years
He began studying political science at the university in Freetown. He applied to enter the U.S. In 2009, he received a so-called diversity immigrant visa ― reserved for those from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. It took him 17 more months living in America to establish legal residency and obtain a permanent resident card.
In 2011 ― May 11, he said proudly ― he enlisted. The following year he met the requirements for citizenship and became an American.
When I met him out on the scorching plains of Fort Hood, Kamara, now 35, and his fellow soldiers were preparing to rehearse an extremely dangerous mission: approaching enemy defenses, thick with tank traps, concertina razor wire and minefields, and blowing a path through them for U.S. tanks to pass safely.
Kamara commands a 72-ton armored behemoth called the Assault Breacher Vehicle. It’s a modified Abrams tank equipped with special explosives and a plow or dozer blade so that it can blast a path through razor wire, minefields and other obstacles. The idea is to go fast with overwhelming power and not stop.
It’s dangerous because the enemy knows you’re coming, an officer explained. The enemy has surely aimed machine guns and heavy artillery on that very point, waiting for someone like Kamara to show up, drawing him into a kill zone. Casualties while clearing this kind of enemy defense are expected to be heavy ― 30 to 50 percent.
The Assault Breacher Vehicle has a two-person crew: the driver and the commander, who also operates the machine gun aboard the charging vehicle. Kamara’s men call him “Killer” because of his prowess at gunnery, and he smiles indulgently. He has known real killers.
Today, Kamara is a quietly professional soldier, like those American troops he met back in Sierra Leone. He has a wife and two daughters, 8- and 2-years-old. After supper most nights, he studies for a degree in homeland security from Ashford University.
He said he has been extremely lucky. Certainly, surviving the civil war in Sierra Leone took a certain amount of good fortune and gumption. But he worked hard to reach the U.S., to obtain his citizenship and to become an American soldier.
Breaching minefields under enemy fire might even seem less daunting.