Miami-Dade County

Q&A with Juan Ramos, a 24-year-old Army specialist and student

What's your daily life like in Iraq? Where are you? What do you do when you get up in the morning, etc?

My daily life, well, it's kind of difficult to pinpoint since the last few months I've gone from living in one camp to another and finally ended up resting at this camp.

My biggest threat in this camp (besides indirect/direct fire) is thinking. As funny as it sounds, it is your thoughts and past which haunt you the most. If you lived where you worked, ate where you worked and did the same thing everyday where you work and weren't allowed to leave, you'd start getting kind of anxious. This is my third combat tour so I learned to develop a "I can't do much" attitude in accordance with my current situation. Being in Iraq means your life back in America is on pause. You don't have anyone else whose life is on pause. They have problems and issues and of course people become lonely leading them to find someone else to fill the void you left, this often leads to break ups or divorces. I am legally separated and don't have a girlfriend so I don't have anything to worry about in that sense.

My daily life, well, the routine I managed to set for myself, is simple. To combat this loneliness, boredom and desperation that comes with life in this country, I go to the gym, read books, watch a movie or attend classes. I am currently in Forward Operating Base Dagger which is in the outskirts of Tikrit. This camp is what is referred to as a MTT team or simply MTT which stands for Military Transition Team.

My job is working at a rural relay point on a communications site. I am sorry, I can't go very much into detail with my job. You understand why, no?

Every morning I get up around 8 AM (Iraqi time) or depending on how late I stayed up the day before. I often have trouble sleeping and on a good day can often find about eight hours on average. I have had trouble sleeping for a while now and unless I am utterly expended, my rest will not come easy.

I usually grab my weapon and head over to the remote area I work in before shaving or anything and ensure everything is okay and nothing detrimental has occurred to the site. After I ensure everything is good, I return to the room to change and shave in the showers.

My day is usually uneventful most of the time with me constantly ensuring the site is doing well. I also pull security at our ECP (entry control point) since our camp is so small. We need everyone to pull their weight and so I help out on guard duty.

Finally the afternoon comes around and I can usually log on and check on my assignments. I do my classes until they call over the radio and announce that dinner is ready. I go over, eat and return afterwards. I like eating very little and early so it doesn't interfere with my gym time.

In the late evening I usually check myspace, my email, my stocks, maybe make a call home or just chat to a friend on Yahoo IM. I also try to work more on classes as well. Usually at 11 PM (Iraqi time) or so I head to the gym where I proceed to vent my frustration, loneliness and anger out in a positive manner. I love going there late at night since nobody is there and I have the small tent all to myself.

What made you decide to enlist? When did you do it? Why?

What made me decide to enlist? Well, that is really a complicated question yet ever so easy. I was young, just graduated high school and knew that college was the next reasonable step but I didn't have the money. I knew I could get grants and take out loans, but I felt I didn't want to go just yet or be in any type of debt.

I tried to work for a few months after graduating but I couldn't find a decent job so I had to face the music. My best friend had enlisted and was about to leave in a few months. He seemed stoked that he got the job of his choice, helicopter mechanic, and he was leaving as well. I didn't want to lose my best friend and not only that but all my friends were going to start college in the fall. I felt I was being left behind and I didn't like my current station in life.

I was born into a life of poverty and lived in Liberty City. I got harried a lot, women didn't much like me and something nagged at me all the while. I felt I was born for something greater and those calls were echoed by my girlfriend (currently estranged wife) so it compounded.

Finally I joined the ARMY because the Air Force had far stricter weight standards coming in from the civilian world than the ARMY. I spoke to my recruiter who told me about how great it was being a paratrooper and that is how I joined up to be with the 82nd Airborne Division. I joined up in August 2001 and shipped out the same month a couple of weeks later.

What made you enroll in college? Why MDC? What subjects did you choose? Why?

I always knew college was for me and I wanted my spouse to go there as well. I formulated a plan for the both of us so that we could make it in life. I told her to go to school and earn her degree while I was in, I would support her financially. Once she got her degree then it would be up to me to leave the military and earn my degree while she took the role of income support. Turns out that she didn't like school, she didn't like authority and could never decide what she wanted to be.

I returned from my second combat tour looking to be with my wife but she spent all our hard-earned money and officially left me the first day I got back to be with her in Miami. I was penniless and heartbroken. I was driving around one day in sheer misery while on vacation to Miami shortly after my wife left me. I vowed to avenge myself against her and all the other women who had wronged me and I said I was going to do it the only way I knew how---to make them envy me.

I drove straight to the InterAmerican campus and enrolled in college deciding that it was the first step to carrying out my plan. A few days later I cooled off and decided that my plan was indeed immature and silly but it led me to my long lost love; education and the feel of power that comes from it.

I chose Miami-Dade because I wanted a school with a hometown feeling. I was desperately homesick and had been for months. I was living in North Carolina since 2002 and seldom came down to Miami. If I ever came down then it was only for vacation purposes which generally were a few days to no more than two weeks (the only noted exception is 30 days I took after my second combat tour).

I chose to major in Mechanical Engineering because I loved it when I was in high school. I was a bookworm and while other people joined sports in high school, I joined the Engineering club. I was happy to be among like-minded people because for so long in my life had I been shunned for being intellectually gifted. I felt that it was that environment that would make me feel happy in the real world. I wanted to be among fellow nerds, if you will.

Most of the subjects I choose are subjects that most people would rather avoid because it requires extensive work and some people don't like to tread the hard road choosing instead classes that seem easier. I chose (or have chosen) Psychology, Philisophy, Social Science, Biology, and several other classes. I love these classes because it makes me think, it helps me escape the detrimental effects of this world and makes me feel as if I belong. The ARMY was never famous for intellectual geniuses.

How do you fit class into your work in the Army? When and where do you log on? How much time to you spend reading? How do you get your books?

Well, as for how I fit class into my ARMY life, I guess you could say I spend every free moment I have pursuing school but take a break every so often so I don't tire of classes. I log on from my room, I have the main Hub in here since this is where they chose to store it. How do I get my books? Well, it's funny you should say that. I usually use skype to call back to the states through my computer since in this camp we don't have phones and the U.S. Join Southern Command office in Miami only patches you through once a day for only fifteen minutes. I think they should change that because it severely affects my morale having to call a more deployed soldier-friendly base with a phone card and have them patch me through.

I call the school and find out what books they are going to use. I find out who my professors are and send them an email explaining who I am, where I am and asking them to be lenient in the delivery of my school books. I often go online and purchase them and most of the times the places I buy them from aren't military-friendly; they don't deliver to APO's or FPO's. Some, however, do and I have them sent to the main camp. I also have the majority sent to my mother who then ships them off to me as soon as possible.

The books usually end up in Iraq in one to two weeks. When I was at the other camp (Forward Operating Base Summerall) outside of Beiji/Bayji, I only had to pick them up. There was one incident in when a few of my books arrived after I left and I had to get them myself by flying out on helicopter or had them fly it in for me via helicopter.

Funny story, my mom sent me a package with a textbook inside and it ended up at the other camp (Summerall) while I was en transit to this camp and sitting at Contingency Operating Base Speicher. I ended up finally manifesting myself for a flight to Summerall. I arrived and told the tail gunner not to leave without me. I ran out with full battle gear, weapon and assault pack to meet someone on the LZ (landing zone) who had my gear and package. I met them halfway and then ran back to the CH-47 chinook. Much to my dismay it was already starting to lift off but I signaled it so it landed again. I ran up to the tell the tail gunner who I was and he allowed me back on. Turns out they changed the original flight from a simple touch and go to a round robin because of me and because of convenience. I made a tour of half the airfields in all of Iraq. I was on that chinook for about six hours waiting to get back to the point of origin. At least I had a nice view since I was sitting right next to the side gunner's nest in front of the open window.

In this camp, the mail system works differently. I have my unit send me packages on outgoing convoys from their main base. This camp is so small that we are not fully self-sufficient. We truck our water for drinking and showers in from the main camp. We truck our food in from the other camp frozen. We truck in our mail and our supplies. Effectively we convoy everything into this camp.

Do you have friends who are studying college while serving? Any other support network for your dual life?

I am sorry to say that I don't really have any friends who are studying while in the ARMY. I know one of my friends signed up but never carried it out. Another one of my friends signed up for classes but he ended up going to Walter Reed because he lost his leg. I assume he stopped going to school because of his hospitalization and injury. Going to school in the military is not hard if you are in garrison and your chain of command knows; they let you leave early to make your class if need be.

In a combat zone though, it is much harder to find time. Sometimes students work twelve hour shifts and still need to find time to sleep, eat and work out so it becomes harder. I have a hard time being a full time college student but I make due. My chain of command is very supportive of me. My mother is very happy since I am the first in my family to go to college. All my professors applaud my effort and some of my peers cheer me on. Those who do not cheer me on either belittle education or say they will do it once they return to America, a rare few say it's stupid. I have many friends in the civilian world who support me as well and say they wish me well. College is hard enough without adding in the stress and tension that comes from being in Iraq.

What was your life like in Miami? Where did you grow up? Go to high school? Where did you hang out on the weekends?

What was my life like in Miami? Well, I was never popular, nerds seldom if ever are. I never had much luck with the ladies and employment opportunities were few unless you had experience or a degree. I loved the weather though, let me tell you. I have traveled and seen many places but there is always that rustic feel of Latin America in all of Miami. I try to explain to people that Miami was socially annexed to the Caribbean and Latin America and still they claim I am wrong.

They have yet to visit Miami is all. I arrived in Miami at the age of three from California. I was born in Harbor City (Los Angeles) and my parents didn't like the environment claiming it was too chaotic to raise a child there. My father had been a Cuban refugee during the 80's and he landed in Miami. He said he loved it and convinced my mother to move there with him.

I grew up in Liberty City for as long as I can remember and it became my home. I used to go down to Flea Market USA to eat there, play at the arcades and fawn over the young ladies who worked there to no avail. I used to go to Arcola Lakes Park and play sports or games, it wasn't much but it was home.

For high school I went to three different schools. I was in Turner Tech until half of my Junior year and then transferred over to Northwestern to finish off my year. I didn't like Northwestern because the education was below par. I was too smart for my own good and constantly feared I would have to resort to brute force to keep my blood where it belonged---inside of me. I eventually moved with a family member to go to another school which is the one I graduated from. I ended up graduating from Miami Springs high school. It wasn't bad but it wasn't great either. At least their education was better and they had very beautiful young ladies there as well.

On where I hung out on the weekends, I usually hung out at either one of my best friend's houses. There wasn't much to do in Liberty City especially since I didn't have much interest in sports. I tried to spend most of my time in the house, I'd also read a lot or simply play video games. I also spent time in Flea Market USA and towards the last bit of time I had in Miami, I spent it with my girlfriend. I loved going to Aventura Mall but they recently got replaced with Dolphin as my favorite. Aventura still has a lot going for it especially since it's closer.

How much longer do you want to stay in the military? When does your commitment end? What will you do when you come back?

I will be honest, the military is not as bad as some make it out to be. Yes, it has a lot of disadvantages but it has numerous advantages as well. Some people don't seem to mind the downside and make it a career. I don't like the downsides or the fact that it's too easy. In the military all that matters is that you know your job, look good doing it and follow the rules and regulations. You do the bare minimum and you will stay out of trouble. You do more than the bare minimum and you get promoted fast. Regardless, even if you do the bare minimum you are almost guaranteed to get promoted. As soon as I return to America my contract expires and I will not re-enlist. I will speak to my chain of command, get my discharge papers, shake a few hands, get a few contact numbers and leave as honorably as I came. My original contract was for six years and it was supposed to end in August 26, 2007 but because of the war and the extensions, I have been pushed back until after November (when we arrive) and they want to keep me in for 90 days after return for purposes of stability. I will talk to my chain of command so that I am released sooner than that in order to attend the spring semester at MDC in 2008.

When I return, first thing is first. I need to get all my gear and turn it in. I need to get all my furniture out of storage and move it back to Miami. I need to sign up for classes through Miami-Dade and I will make an appointment to speak to my Battalion commander to ask for an early release. I plan to attend classes at the InterAmerican campus.

I will return to Miami and for the first month I will live with my mother. Once I am settled in and comfortable then I will move out and locate my estranged wife so we can finally be done with this divorce mess. If I get out of North Carolina fast enough, I will go to Hawaii to go on vacation and see the volcanoes as well as the islands and walk around on the beach. I also have some tickets to Universal studios that I will finally use upon my return.

Also, as soon as I have my life in order, roll over my TSP into a Roth IRA and move into an apartment, I will start looking for a girlfriend. I am more than overdue for one and fifteen months in Iraq alone plus the few months before that add up to a long time of loneliness. I don't like it but it is necessary at times.

How has the experience of combat changed you? I read your eloquent intro to the class, as I mentioned, and I know you spoke some about that. How does it change your perspective on going to school?

Well, the experience of a combat zone changes a person. It doesn't matter if you are a cook, a medic or an infantryman, you all suffer on the same basic level.

I have not seen a woman in forever, my camp is all-male and that alone makes it virtually different. A man does not come to appreciate a woman as much as a deployed soldier does. Their smell, the softness of their skin, the sweetness in their voice or their coyish giggles. Men go back to America and are stunned to see women; I know I was when I went home to Miami. I was too shy to approach them since I didn't even know how to start speaking to them.

Also, in theater of operations liquor is not allowed. Many people enjoy a drink or two and others still drink for the sheer joy that comes with utter inebriation. I usually drink to taste the liquor and prefer delicious drinks such as flavored rum, Ouzo or Kahlua to straight rum or brandy. But when you return you soon realize how weak your tolerance is. I was home on vacation and I drank a glass of Kahlua on an empty stomach and immediately I felt my face get flushed and I got warm all over. I started getting a buzz from a little bit of liquor.

Another thing that people often leave this country with are bad memories or sometimes even nightmares. I won't go into this at any length because it is not what I was going to mention. I am referring to institutionalization of a person. I am a three time combat veteran and I have been in and out of Iraq since late late 2003. I usually go home for a few months and then come right back out here barely getting any time for myself back in the states. Below are my deployment dates as I remember them: Early October 2003 to mid April 2004Early October 2004 to mid October 2005Early August 2006 to current (approximately early Nov 2007)

Being in the military and being in a combat zone; it's all I know. I missed so many movies and events back in America that whenever I go home people look at me weird. I play music that is months old and claim to love it because it's new. People talk about artists or events and I don't know what is going on. I speak to them in old slang from years ago and they laugh at me. Many things have changed and Miami has changed the most. Times remain relatively the same in the small sleepy town of Fayetteville. That diminutive North Carolina town is used to military guys and understands their social plight. People in Miami seem to have forgotten that there is a war currently in effect and people are overseas.

Whenever I go to Atlanta or some other American city, people shake my hand, smile at me or thank me. They are genuinely appreciative of us but in Miami it seems as if a globe of forgetfulness has descended on many people and they forgot that we are at war. When I was there on vacation at the clubs I'd ask the ladies for a dance only to be turned down despite me telling them that I only had to weeks to live it up before returning to Iraq. Women don't want to get involved because they fear you might die or just want someone next to them and don't understand that we get as lonely as them but can't do anything about it. I guess what I am trying to say is that the American spirit and patriotism in Miami is weaning badly; at least Metro Zoo lets active military in for free!

As for how the military changes my perspective on school, well, it's simple. Earlier I stated that I have an "I can't do much" attitude, well, what I can control in my life are finances and my education. I have full and total control of my finances thanks to military-friendly banks like USAA and Bank of America military banking or Armed Forces Bank.

I own stocks, I have government securities and I am preparing myself for a bright future. I can't do much but I can control my money so I am doing that right now.

As for my education, I often find that I can indeed work on it although it takes considerable work. I love the board postings, however, because it gives me a chance to speak to normal civilian people who are from Miami. They "speak" and I "listen", they state their opinions and I counter them just for fun. I don't get many pleasures being here in Iraq so little ones like communication mean the world to me, that and mail.