News: From refugee to American soldier
Story by Staff Sgt. Matthew Winstead
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - His peers have called him the “happiest man in the Army,” even though the tragic events of his early life have given him more than enough reasons to be bitter.
Currently serving as the material management officer for U.S. Army Alaska, the characteristically positive and energetic Chief Warrant Officer 3 Samuel Banks hasn’t always been as comfortable, respected, or even so sure he would see another sunrise.
Banks is a naturalized citizen, something that you only begin to notice once you speak with the exuberant and good-natured American patriot as he goes about his daily routine.
His foreign accent only provides a faint hint of his existence in 1990-era Liberia when an army of violent rebels led by recently convicted war criminal Charles Taylor invaded from the north and changed his life forever.
“I believe it was Christmas Eve in 1989 when we first heard that rebels had invaded the northern border of Liberia, but the government quickly announced that they had repelled the invasion and there was no further need for worry. This was untrue,” said Banks recalling the beginning of the tragic events that would soon unfold.
Banks and his family would soon find out the rebels not been beaten and pushed back and they were advancing at an alarming pace toward the capital Monrovia where he and his family made their home.
On the morning of the attack in his neighborhood he was awoken by the sound of artillery and rocket fire despite the previous false reassurances of the government and the soon to be captured and executed President Samuel Doe, who himself rose to power amidst political scandal and military insurrection.
“The sound of weapons fire started around 5 or 6 in the morning and woke up everyone,” Banks said.
He and his family were forced from their homes under the guns of advancing rebel forces who were systematically forcing evacuations with the thinly veiled intent of looting the abandoned houses and killing anyone with political or government connections.
“Prior to the invasion the rebels had sent people into the major cities to get jobs as government workers. Once hired, they gathered information on people to target within the organizations and memorized the tactical lay of the land,” Banks said. “By the time they actually started their invasion, they already knew who to kill and probably knew the terrain of the area better than the actual Liberian army. When they came to us, they said we were being removed for only 72 hours for security reasons.
"That was the last time I ever saw my home.”
A grim journey
The ousted citizens were forced into massive single-file lines and marched north out of town and deeper into rebel-controlled territory. All the while vehicles filled with violent rebels drove up and down the lines looking for people they recognized as having government affiliations and executed them on sight.
“They would kill people in barbaric ways right in front of us and even their own families. They used chainsaws to decapitate people and hammers to bludgeon others. It wasn’t uncommon to see decaying bodies or skeletal remains as we walked in these single-file lines.” Banks said.
All he and his family had with them were the clothes on their backs, something many in his family would later get rid of, trying to forget the days where they marched under rebel guns and almost certain death; however, Banks kept his as a reminder that no matter what, there is always something to hope for.
Eventually, they came to a closed U.S. Naval base where they were able to take refuge for a few days. Base Omega had been shut down at the beginning of the tension earlier that year and the facility was securely locked up. With no way to access the buildings that had once housed U.S. military and their families Banks and his family lived on the front porches of military housing units for about a week before the rebels discovered their makeshift camps and looted the installation.
Banks and his family fled into the forest surrounding Omega and after days without food soon found themselves forced back into single-file lines on the roads as their only alternative to starvation. There they learned that the rebels had broken into smaller factions after squabbling over power and had begun a more desperate search for former military and government workers.
“They were making us remove our shoes and looking at our bare feet to look for the signs that constant boot wearing leaves on a soldier's feet. If you had the [callous] marks they took you into the woods and you were never seen again,” he said.
At this point in the journey, three rebels approached his father and took him into the woods for a shakedown. The rebels wanted money and if he wasn’t able to pay there would be little chance of him ever emerging from the trees.
“My father was a computer analyst for one of the government offices and they took him away for money. They ordered us to continue without him, so we had no choice but to keep walking, but we purposefully moved slower and lingered in the area until we were sure we would never see him again. During this time all we could do was pray and recite the 23rd Psalm.” Banks said.
The prayer did not go unanswered. With only one American quarter in his pocket there was little chance of Banks’s father ever returning to them alive, but there was something else in his wallet that made even the rebels think long and hard about killing the elder Banks. A North Carolina driver’s license.
“In Liberia, America and Americans are greatly respected. We trace the beginnings of the country to America and based our constitution and flag off of the American ones. So thinking my father was a citizen of the U.S. made at least one of the men there reconsider killing him that day,” Banks said.
It turns out that moment of hesitation was enough. The rebels released his father after a beating and instructed him to fall back in with the single-file line. At least one of them promised they would kill him later since another one of their number was too unsure to allow it then and there. After his release and catching back up with the others, his clothing was swapped with those of his son’s fiancée, Banks future wife Garmai, in an effort to better disguise his appearance.
Eventually, the rebel presence lessened and they began to travel in smaller groups and forage food from the forest to survive. Boiled and crushed roots, bark and leaves provided the majority of their nutrition while news came by word of mouth from new refugees they encountered on the road. Soon the rebels’ tactics turned even more brutal as they began pressing captured fighting age males into their numbers and raping the women they encountered.
It was during this period of time that Banks and his 37-person group hid in the wooded areas and survived primarily on a diet of foraged foods and whatever sugar cane they could glean from the abandoned fields almost three hours and several river crossings away.
“When my brother and I made our trips to the sugar cane fields we would have to cross at least one river that was neck deep with 100 to 150 pounds of sugar cane on our heads. Another river we had to cross over a fallen tree that was only this wide [Banks gestured a distance of about 7 inches with his hands] and the water was moving so fast that if you were to fall in, you were gone. Just gone,” Banks said.
They were situated outside the Liberian town of Kakata, where there was a strong presence of Lebanese businesses that were able to afford to bribe off the rebels. This did not make things any safer for Banks and his group however, so they remained mostly in seclusion even when the rebels began to break up into still smaller factions and again changed their methods. They began attempting to soften their image by offering food assistance in the form of small bags of rice to the displaced Liberians.
With little more than three cups of rice a day they added potato greens, a dark leafy vegetable similar to collards, to make the meals seem more filling and to boost their iron as many of their people were becoming sick from blood loss, minimal medical care and poor nutrition.
While the rebels continued to try to improve their image they also began trading stolen raw gold and diamonds in exchange for goods, like cigarettes and other commodities, with the Lebanese in Kakata.
Several of the businessmen developed a degree of trust with the refugees and it was one of these men, dating a woman in Banks’ group, who eventually helped them cross the border into the Ivory Coast (officially known as The Republic of Côte d'Ivoire). The man instructed her to tell them to wait and three weeks later he returned the truck the across the border.
“This was a very stressful time for us because we assumed he would be back that day, or the next at the very latest. But when he didn’t come back for those three weeks we thought he had abandoned us,” Banks said.
Across the border
They experienced only one close call at the border that required them to spend one last night in Liberia. Banks and his family had to endure one more night in life-threatening danger, literally within sight of the safety of another country, before they finally crossed into the Ivory Coast and to Danane, where a refugee settlement was forming.
Although it was their first time in one established location after 90 days of wandering and hiding in the woods of Liberia, there was little cause to relax.
“The Ivory Coast wasn’t following the U.N. guidance for the aid and assistance for the goods they provided us. Most of the aid intended for Liberian refugees was captured by the local government and sold back to us at increased costs, even the goods still in the original packages bearing the U.S. and U.N. symbols and the word ‘Gift’ printed on them,” Banks said.
Under the assumption that most Liberian refugees had wealthy American relatives who funded their escape, local Ivory Coast merchants also charged increased rates for merchandise, according to Banks.
“Liberia was founded by English speaking people, and the Ivory Coast by the French. When we arrived unable to speak French they would charge us $5 for something they charged a local 25 cents for,” Banks said.
The country’s government was also causing troubles for the refugees, refusing to even grant them official refugee status and instead labeling them as “guests.”
Banks and the other Liberians quickly found themselves being charged large amounts for the “rent” of their camps and lodging costs for their continued stay in the country. Now, with a need to find some sort of paying work, Banks and other members of his group eventually started working for a Catholic compound that hired as many of them as it could to do cleaning, farming and killing of snakes.
“That was the first time I ever saw a two-headed snake!” Banks said.
It was also where Banks would see constant shipments of illegal artillery move into Liberia by night. These weapons were just part of the illegally purchased munitions flowing into the shattered nation he once called his home. For the next three years, he spent his time there with other members of his family paying for their stay, learning French and teaching at a high school. It was also where his first son, Baldwin Banks died at only 18 months from the poor conditions.
“There were some very … hard times,” Banks said, still bearing the emotions of the tragic loss.
But after three long and hard years in a Liberian refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, Banks and his family were eventually able to leave Africa and come to the United States.
The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program and Catholic Social Services worked together to help Liberians who met the specifications of the program to come to the United States. Banks’s family arrived in America nearly three years after their ordeal in Liberia began.
Banks recalls in vivid detail a dream he had that both preceded the announcement of his impending departure, and deeply reaffirmed his faith.
“It was a dream, one of those that leaves you questioning if it was real or just a dream or not. I woke up and told my mother that in my dream the list of approved immigrants had been released and that our names were written on it in ink. Something about it stood out in my mind that I couldn’t forget. Later that day, chaos erupted in the camp when the list actually was released and there on the bottom under all of the other names that were typed, there was our names - hand written and in ink,” Banks said with a smile. “All of God’s work happens for a reason.”
However, not all of the people in Banks family were able to make the trip. Due to the wording of the laws that governed the resettlement program, Banks had to leave his fiancée and second 1-month-old son, Samuel David Banks, in the refugee camp for an additional three years while he worked in the United States regularly sending her money and providing for them as he looked for a legal way to reunite his family.
“It was hard because many times the money I sent was stolen before they could get it. It would just get stolen somewhere along the way and my wife would have to call me and tell me ‘No, we didn’t get the money you sent,’” Banks said.
A family reunited
During his stay in America without his wife-to-be and child, Banks worked hard both as an airport security officer Charlotte, N.C., and as a baker. He also joined the National Guard, which eventually led to active-duty service with the U.S. Army.
Banks was able to travel back to the refugee camp as a soldier on leave and married his fiancée in 1995. The following year, his wife and child were officially reunited with him when he was stationed in Germany under military orders authorizing him to bring his spouse and child.
There were initially some issues when his wife began her travel. Custom and control agents at her point of origin didn’t want to let her leave the country, but her U.S. military orders authorizing her to accompany him immediately opened doors and they were soon escorted all the way from gate to gate at every stop until they finally reached their new duty assignment together, soldier, wife and child.
“I’m just glad they got there,” Banks said. “My luggage was lost when I was assigned to Germany and I never got it back. I arrived with only what I had on my back -- again,” Banks said with a chuckle.
While the Army has provided much to Banks and his family, he admits that it wasn’t his first choice at the time, especially considering the war and violence he had just escaped. However, he has done everything he can to give back to the country that rescued him and his loved ones.
His tireless commitment to excellence doesn’t go unnoticed.
Tim Leigh, the equipment reset officer with USARAK G-4 who shares the office with Banks, speaks highly of him.
“[Banks] appreciates every day,” Leigh said. “If you went through half of the things he did, you would too.”
In addition to the hardships he mentioned before, Banks also recalled several close calls with Liberian rebels and even the heartbreaking loss of his wife’s father, whose body they were unable to recover due to the chaos of their forced displacement.
“During those times, my father-in-law was killed and they left his body in the street where the dogs ate him. Later the rebels would come in and kill and eat the dogs. It was madness,” Banks said in a rare moment of apparent sorrow. “But you know what? God does what is best, and I have helped so many people since I arrived here by just being positive despite my past. I’m happy for that and very thankful.”
Flowing with humility and joy of life, Banks often tells others that he is no different than anyone else and that it is his firm belief that prayer works, adding that he is living, breathing proof of that.
When asked if there was anything else that he would like people to learn from his experience, he simply smiles again and says, “Even disappointment is a blessing.”
Sometimes the blessings come at just the right time with no sorrow attached. Within the last few weeks the Banks family was happy to greet yet another member of their family back into their fold.
Kula Deddeh Roberts, his mother-in-law, whom he hadn’t seen since 1995, finally arrived in the United States and will live with them here in Alaska. This comes at a particularly good time as Banks himself prepares to deploy for a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.
“It has taken us many years to get my mother-in-law here with us, but she made it and we are very happy she is here with us,” Banks said, smiling warmly at his wife and mother in law. “And just in time, so I can go to Afghanistan knowing everything is good here.”
“She had her own adventure getting here too,” Garmai Banks said. “She got delayed in Washington (state) and ended up needing help to finish getting to us in Anchorage, but a lady missed her own flight to help my mother get on her own.”
The Banks family continues to thrive despite having been challenged in ways most others only read about in the news. They said they will face the future challenges with the same dedication and faith they have shared through some of the most trying events anyone could imagine.
With his mother-in-law now home and his eldest son, Samuel, eyeing college options, Banks happily tells people that even now, standing at the beginning of a deployment he has found many reasons to smile.