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New American Army

The phone calls came, from the East Coast, from down South and all the way from Australia. In the tight-knit Sudanese expatriate community, news that Aja Galuak planned to enlist in the North Dakota Army National Guard spread fast. Galuak's older...

Aja Galuak does push-ups

The phone calls came, from the East Coast, from down South and all the way from Australia. In the tight-knit Sudanese expatriate community, news that Aja Galuak planned to enlist in the North Dakota Army National Guard spread fast. Galuak's older brother, Akol Joseph Makeer, had some explaining to do.

After all, the callers noted, no woman had wielded a rifle in the 20-plus years of vicious fighting that flushed Galuak and her siblings from their home village in southern Sudan.

No Sudanese woman had thought to become a soldier in Galuak's new homeland. There, men like Makeer are dubbed Lost Boys, and women like his sister - who came in much smaller numbers because the war was even less sparing of females - are by extension Lost Girls.

But Galuak had made up her mind.

Even as more immigrants are joining overextended armed forces nationally, Galuak, a human resource specialist in Fargo, is something of a trailblazer in this area.

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Since she joined last year, the 22-year-old North Dakota State University sophomore has inspired several Sudanese men to join - and confront the prospect of fighting for an adoptive homeland where they came to get away from all the fighting.

Lure of the uniform

When Galuak approached him last year, Fargo Guard recruiter Eric Binstock was concerned. On the phone, her accent had made it hard for him to make her out. In person, she was polite, sharp - and extremely soft-spoken and retiring.

"I was just like, 'Whoa, this is going to be difficult,' " Binstock says.

Aja fully expected difficult. She had trouble fitting in at Fargo South High, where she enrolled when she arrived here in 2003 with her siblings. With her strong accent and little grasp of American teen cool, she had trouble infiltrating high school cliques.

"Getting to know people was hard," she recalls. "I was so lonely."

When she graduated two years later, she worked as a cashier at Hornbacher's and dreamed of college, which she could hardly afford.

The Sudanese community in the United States places a high premium on education, and for her it held a special allure.

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In southern Sudan these days, the primary school completion rate for girls is about 1 percent. Here, "The only thing you need to do is just do it," she says. "Work hard, and you'll achieve your goal."

A Guard information booth in her high school had promised free college tuition, a feeling of belonging and a chance to change the world. She could use all of those.

Makeer tried to talk her out of it. "In Sudan, normal women don't join the military," he told her.

But what has bothered him most is the prospect of his sister shipped away to war. These fears gripped him again in September, when news of fellow Lost Boy Beer Ayuel's death shook the Sudanese community. Ayuel settled in Atlanta after dodging marauding militias, famine and illness on his trek out of Sudan. He was killed in Iraq, 17 days into his tenure as a translator for the Army.

"We came here for refuge," says Aja, who doesn't know the fate of her parents and many of her siblings. "People were saying since we got out (of) war, if we get deployed again, it will not be good."

But, Akol reminded the baffled callers, in America 21-year-olds get to make their own decisions. Aja enlisted in the Guard in spring 2006 and enrolled full time as a pharmacy major at NDSU that fall.

Confronting the past

In the spacious gym at Fargo's armed forces building on the edge of Hector Airport, Aja and her unit went through physical testing this October during monthly drill weekend. In black sweats and gray Army T-shirt, she had an air of supreme calm. Her face showed little strain while she eked out her 50th push-up. She ran a 2-mile flat, treeless stretch along Interstate 29 silently as fellow soldiers panted or grunted.

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During her 10-week basic combat training course in South Carolina's Fort Jackson, she logged in quite a few miles during physical training. The running, the shouting of officers and the barking of rifles during weapons training awakened chaotic memories.

Before she reunited with Akol at Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp in 1998, Aja spent most of her childhood wandering through war-torn southern Sudan. When she got caught in skirmishes along the way, she ran.

"When the fighting was on, I was so little," Aja says. "I wished I had the skill to do something about it instead of running."

As the shock of the basic training flashbacks wore off, it struck her that now she was the one holding the weapon. She was running to get stronger, not to get away. She had come a long way.

Besides, she found the shared trials of basic training brought her and fellow soldiers together in a way she never experienced in high school.

She fit in.

She returned from training looking stalwart as ever (or looking "like a man," as her older brother puts it with some distaste) and more grounded. She had survived, and her return seemed to pose a tacit challenge to her once skeptical Sudanese friends.

The new soldiers

This January, Aja's friend Chol Mayom joined the Guard and was accepted into NDSU's ROTC program. His cousin, Herjot Herjot, also in ROTC at NDSU, enlisted in the Army Reserve. Two more Sudanese men, Mayom says, tried out for the Guard but failed the ASVAB entrance test.

"After Aja came back," 28-year-old Mayom says, "I thought, 'If she can do it, I can do it too.'"

Mayom, who's wrapping up his master's degree in economics, welcomes the leadership training he gets in ROTC and the chance to score a good job with the Guard after graduation. A native of the country that once harbored Osama Bin Laden, he studies Arabic and hopes to join the war on terror.

His decision to enlist didn't shock the way Aja's did. Yet, he faced the general unease about serving among some in the Sudanese community. "Why did you join?" people asked him. "There was a war back home, and you know it's bad." Meyom counters that when God picks the day he dies, it will happen whether he's in Fargo or Falluja.

In the past couple of years, the issue of immigrants in the armed forces has become increasingly salient. About 8,000 legal residents join the U.S. military each year, according to Pentagon statistics, some possibly lured by the fast track to citizenship President Bush opened by executive order during his first term. (Mayom became a U.S. citizen before enlisting; Aja, a legal resident, says the much shorter wait for her citizenship was a reason to enlist.)

In immigration legislation that failed in Congress earlier this year, lawmakers proposed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who join the overextended military.

Here in North Dakota, the Guard couldn't track down any immigrant members besides Aja and Meyom.

Sinisa Milovanovic, the Lutheran Social Services director for New American Services, says even the limited interest in serving is significant: "That sends a message to me that refugees are ready to take arms and fight for this country. I see it as a commitment to their new home."

In the meantime, Akol mostly stopped chafing at uncomfortable questions about his sister at Sudanese gatherings. This fall, for the first time, her decision sparked in him something quite different from his initial embarrassment. He was having lunch with several Sudanese friends at a south Fargo restaurant when men and women in Guard uniforms started coming in. One of his friends commented on the exclusively white group.

Then Aja walked in, and pride washed over him.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529 New American Army Mila Koumpilova 20071126

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