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. Her 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 Aja and her siblings from their home village in southern Sudan.
No Sudanese woman had thought to become a soldier in Aja'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 Aja Galuak had made up her mind.
Since she joined the Guard 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.
When Aja 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.
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. Those 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," said Aja, who does not 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."
Her brother reminded the baffled callers that 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.
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.
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 her brother 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 said. "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 and more grounded. She had survived, and her return seemed to pose a tacit challenge to her once skeptical Sudanese friends.
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 said, tried out for the Guard but failed the entrance test.
"After Aja came back," 28-year-old Mayom said, "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. 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.
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.
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," he said.
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