News: 'Lost boy of Sudan' teaches resiliency to 87th CSSB Soldiers
Story by 1st Lt. Amanda Cookman
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - Swim or die? Those were the only two choices Aleer Duot and the “Lost Boys of Sudan” had as they fled their refugee camps in Ethiopia.
Most of the boys didn’t know how to swim, but they jumped into the Gilo River anyways. For many of them, the thought of swimming was better than the alternative—being shot to death by armed rebels.
Sudan was in the middle of a civil war and the boys had fled to Ethiopia to seek asylum. War now spilled into Ethiopia, forcing Duot back into the Sudan to walk to refuge in Kenya.
The river was simply another obstacle between them and their hope of finding peace. Over half of the boys had already been captured by the rebels or died from hunger, disease, or dehydration. The boys knew swimming was their only real choice.
The current was swift and many of the boys drowned as they attempted to cross the river. Others were eaten by crocodiles. Duot was fortunate. He was able to climb inside a canoe and paddle across the river.
When the boys had finally reached Kenya, they had walked over 1,000 miles. Duot would spend the next eight years in Kenya.
When he was 16 years old, he received news he was one of the 3,000 boys being chosen to resettle in the U.S. Duot was relieved; however time had taken its toll on him. He had spent the last 12 years on the run and had forgotten much of his life, including what his family looked like.
“My mother and sister showed up at the refugee camp in Kenya just before I came to America,” said Duot. “I did not know who they were. Someone had to tell me that they were my mother and sister because I had not seen them since I was four.”
Duot has come a long way since his days in Kenya.
In 2001, Duot came to the U.S. and settled in the Phoenix, Ariz., with his two cousins Chol Dok and Deng Jok. He graduated high school and attended Central Arizona College, where he won the Cross Country Nationals twice. His athleticism earned him a full scholarship to the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2010.
He became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and joined the U.S. Army Reserves two years later.
Today, he serves as a sergeant in the United States Army. He is currently deployed as a motor transportation operator with the 125th Transportation Company, Kentucky Reserves, in Afghanistan.
Duot’s journey has continued to shape his daily life. Duot is on his second deployment since joining the Army and he is sharing his experiences with fellow soldiers in an effort to inspire those around him.
The 87th CSSB Resiliency Training Program organized an open forum event, giving soldiers the opportunity to hear Duot’s story, bringing light to the endurance of the human spirit in the middle of a war zone.
“Telling my story to people means a lot,” said Duot. “It gives me a sense of giving back to people. My ultimate goal is to inspire them. It makes me smile.”
After his speech, the soldiers gave Duot a standing ovation. Many of the soldiers in the room seemed genuinely moved by his story.
“He left a war, to come back to war,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Duncan, 87th CSSB Master Resiliency Trainer. “He comes here to tell his story, hoping his story will help somebody else today.”
Sgt. Oyinpreye Dorgu, who moved to the U.S. in 2002, agreed with Duncan.
“His story is a real story of inspiration. Many of us hear stories on the news, but it is powerful to hear it firsthand. Having him speak really makes it hit home. It is very telling,” said Dorgu, 543rd Quartermaster Company, a native of Port Harcourt Rivers State, Nigeria.
Duot admits people are always asking how he overcame the hardships in his life and are usually surprised when he responds with one word— support. Duot said it was a blessing to have met different people and different cultures along his journey and he believes they reinforced his will to survive.
When asked if he is living the American Dream, Duot responded “The American Dream, to me, means opportunity. I still have a lot of opportunities ahead of me in my life.”
Duot believes Afghanistan has many opportunities in its future as well.
“I came to America to gain opportunities,” said Duot. “The U.S. came to Afghanistan to help them build a better country and society. It is an incredible opportunity.”
Through it all, Duot has remained humble. He sees perseverance within his fellow soldiers and tries to actively remind them of their sacrifice.
“You volunteered to serve in a war and you all show the ability to defend and protect one another; that is resiliency,” said Duot. “Looking at you, you all still have a smile on your face. Many of you had the pride to protect yourself and your country; I admire the sacrifice you have made.”
Duot is scheduled to return back to the U.S. in September, where he will return to his job serving as a sheriff in Richmond, Va. Duot said he wants to continue his education and has hopes of completing his master’s degree in Public Health.
Duot has come so far from his beginnings but has not forgotten where he came from.
“I hope to return to South Sudan one day; it is home,” said Duot.