Refugee deploys as U.S. soldier

Herald/DAVID MORRIS - Soldiers from the Aviation Brigade in the 4th Infantry Division take a break outside the Larkin Terminal on West Fort Hood as they wait Monday afternoon to depart for their 15-month deployment to Iraq.

By Iuliana Petre

Killeen Daily Herald

If you think 15 months in Iraq is challenging, consider spending 15 months in a Cuban correctional facility, or a year and a half in a Guantanamo Bay refugee camp.

Staff Sgt. Janoi Cabrera, who was one of 460 soldiers to deploy Monday with the Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, has experienced both hardships.

No stranger to difficulty, Cabrera was born and raised in Havana, Cuba.

He served in the Cuban army and it was during this time that he tried to escape Cuba in a raft. But, Cuban men between the ages of 15 and 27 are not allowed to leave Cuba because, under the law, they are subject to mandatory military service.

Cabrera was picked up by the Cuban Coast Guard and sentenced to 15 months in a Cuban correctional facility.

When he got out, he tried to escape again.

This time he was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and placed in a refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay. He remained there for a year and a half.

"It was tough (under communism in Cuba)," Cabrera said, but added that it was also tough in the refugee camp. He couldn't work or do anything. His freedoms were limited.

The good thing about being in the refugee camp was that he eventually processed out and was allowed to remain in the United States.

"(This was in) 1994 when (Fidel) Castro let everybody leave who wanted to leave Cuba. At that time, President Clinton set up the refugee camp to process people into the United States," Cabrera said.

Finally, in 1995, Cabrera was authorized to enter the United States. He went to Miami, Fla., where his mother and siblings lived.

Cabrera's mother was a former Cuban political prisoner who was released to the United States in 1990 for speaking out against the communist government. She set up her residence in Miami. The only reason Cabrera was unable to leave with her in 1990 was because of the service mandate for males.

But, he liked being a soldier and eventually, after his immigration paperwork was ironed out, he rejoined the service at age 27, this time with the U.S. Army.

He's now 37 and 10 years into a career as a soldier, trained as an Apache crew chief, but currently serving as a platoon sergeant in Alpha Company, Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.

Cabrera has deployed twice before – the first time to Kosovo with the 1st Infantry Division in 1999 and the second time to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division.

"I choose to do this," Cabrera says of being a soldier. "I miss my family (when I'm gone), but this is my job, and I have to do it."

Contact Iuliana Petre at or (254) 501-7469.

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