March 3, 2006, Guantanamo Bay Navy Base, Cuba - A decade after he was brought ashore as a so-called "balsero, " amid the rafter crisis of the mid 1990s, Petty Officer Virgilio Franqui is back at Guantanamo, now a U.S. Navy sailor working at the base hospital. In between, Franqui studied in Hialeah and Kendall, did Navy bootcamp in the snow and became an American citizen. Photo by Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald Staff.
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- In a place where everyone seems to have arrived by an extraordinary journey, Petty Officer Virgilio Franqui's road to Guantánamo may be the most remarkable.
A decade after he took shelter at this base as a balsero - one of tens of thousands of Cuban rafters who fled their homeland - he's back, as a U.S. sailor and newly minted American citizen.
Franqui, 32, grew up 500 miles away near Havana and took to the seas in the mid-1990s amid the U.S.-Cuban migration crisis. He spent a year here in temporary tent camps, then launched a new life in South Florida.
"When I stepped off the plane, it impressed me, " he said in a recent interview. "I was here as a refugee."
Suspected terrorists are brought manacled and masked to the base from Afghanistan.
Navy police who guard them are pulled from ports and the fleet the world over.
Civilian contract workers here hail from the Philippines, Jamaica and South Asia.
By contrast, Franqui's first trip in summer 1993 took three days by raft, then several more aboard a Coast Guard cutter that dropped him here.
They were 11 men, including his father, on a 15-foot raft they fashioned from wood and metal.
He still remembers the scorching sun over the Florida Straits, the other fleeing Cubans at sea and the surprise that, in the end, U.S. authorities took him to this remote outpost - 500 miles as the crow flies from his departure point, Cojimar, Cuba.
"I didn't even know this was Cuba, to tell you the truth. The rocks were totally different than in Havana, " he said one evening at the Naval Station Hospital, where he now works in administration.
Today, he is a quirky blend of shy, self-effacing enlisted sailor and rueful, wisecracking Cuban American. He took the oath of citizenship earlier this year.
During the year he spent in Guantánamo, the balsero population surged to 35,000. He and his dad were in Family Camp, an unused airstrip where the first lesson was, when the military handed out rations, go for No. 5. It had ham.
Later, he said, U.S. churches sent books, and he worked on his English between visits to the beach, when the Marines permitted.
Even today, he said, the beach is still a favorite destination.
Now he goes with wife Rebecca, like him a sailor medic, whom he met and married while they were on their last assignment - near Parris Island, S.C.
Between stops in Guantánamo, he said, he left the base for processing at Krome detention center, English classes in Hialeah, surgical technician training in Kendall and boot camp in the Great Lakes, where he first tasted snow, doing push-ups in the cold.
He returned here in May 2004, 10 years and one month after departing the base.
His mother, who emigrated after him and his father, romanticized the return, he said. She predicted the assignment would bring "a lot of memories."
Not so, he said. "I don't have time for it."
Almost apologetically, Franqui shrugged off suggestions that his life story might
seem remarkable to some people.
Or utterly American.
In 2004, he was finishing his first tour and was in search of a post where he and his wife might serve together.
"It was either Iceland or Gitmo, " he said, using Navy slang for the place that gave him sanctuary as a 20-year-old.
No fan of the cold, he chose Guantánamo.