African immigrant left well-to-do lifestyle for service in American military
By Lance Cpl. Dorian Gardner
| | April 22, 2005
MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO, Calif. --
Though college educated in West Africa, when Ousmane M. Goumandakoye landed in the American West in 1999 following his father's wishes, he knew little. He did know, however, that he wanted to be a Marine.
"I got off the plane and I didn't know what to do," said Goumandakoye. "My father told me to remember two words: hotel and cab."
The eldest of nine siblings, Goumandakoye said he grew up in Niger living a privileged and affluent life - a big house, drivers, and maids - because his family name once led a storied tribe. His father, Mounkaila Goumandakoye, is now a policy adviser and an environmental steward for the United Nations Development Program's Drylands Development Center.
"If a country was tearing down a forest, my father would issue fines for violating environmental policy," said Goumandakoye.
In Niamey, Niger's capital, Goumandakoye first encountered the few and the proud.
"We lived near the (American) embassy and I always saw Marines standing outside the building," said Goumandakoye. "I talked to one of them one day; I think I was 17. He was very nice and courteous. That is when I knew that I wanted to be a Marine."
Goumandakoye was 22 when he came to America to continue his college education, and he faced challenges the moment he touched down in Arizona.
"I knew nobody - knew nothing about the country, and I didn't speak a word of English," said Goumandakoye, whose native tongue is mostly French.
"One thing my father taught me before I left Africa was how to be independent - find my way," said Goumandakoye.
He quickly enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and after four months of English classes, Goumandakoye said he had the language down. His education continued at Pima Community College in Tucson where he studied business administration. After two years at Pima, he returned to U of A to work on a bachelor's degree in engineering.
While living and learning the American lifestyle, Goumandakoye met 19-year-old Melissa Carpio, and they married June 1, 2002. They own a home in Tucson.
When Goumandakoye turned 28 - and with about one semester away from earning his degree - he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He called his father, the one backing the tuition, and explained to him what he had to do.
Goumandakoye hopes to become a naturalized American citizen under President Bush's executive order in 2003 allowing all noncitizen active duty members serving after Sept. 11, 2001 to apply for citizenship. The order waives a three-year residency requirement because members are serving during a period of armed conflict.
Goumandakoye's father supported his decision.
"He asked me if I knew what I was doing and I told him yes," said Goumandakoye. "He told me that if I should die in a war on a battlefield somewhere, to do so with honor. I heard that and it meant a lot to me."
According to Goumandakoye, his first month at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego was not easy. After all, he grew up with servants and rarely performed household chores in Niger. He said, "I was asking myself one thing: 'Why? Why did I do this?'"
The first few days were the worst.
"Black Friday," said Goumandakoye, seconds after thinking back to his worst day of boot camp when he met his Company B drill instructors. Goumandakoye said he hated the first-phase shower routine, and it seemed he never had enough time to get clean the way drill instructors rushed recruits along.
"I couldn't take it," he said. "I told myself it would not be like this everyday."
He endured stress, but he also flourished, according to observers.
"He hardly stressed out," said Sgt. Ben A. Pettit, drill instructor, Platoon 1057, Company B. "He displayed a lot more maturity than other recruits. You could see that."
"(Goumandakoye) stood out among everybody else," said Staff Sgt. Roberto Barba, senior drill instructor, Platoon 1057, Company B. "Through talking with him, I could tell he was intelligent - mature."
Barba offered Goumandakoye a squad- leading position, but the recruit declined because he felt a language barrier would hinder his abilities. In boot camp, speaking is very fast, loud and jargoned - words Goumandakoye had never heard before.
"I feel I could do a better job than some of the squad leaders we have now," said Goumandakoye. "Being a squad leader is not just about yelling and impressing your drill instructor. It is about making sure your team accomplishes the mission."
One squad leader in Goumandakoye's platoon, Pfc. Steven R. Morrison, said, "(Goumandakoye) could definitely be a good squad leader. He opens his mouth and he is not afraid to lead."
During the second month of boot camp when recruits received their field training, Goumandakoye saw things speed up a little, and he liked that. But it also proved to be more physical.
"I had bad knees, and I really felt it going up the Reaper," said the 5-foot-11-inch Goumandakoye about the final foothill recruits must climb after marching 40 miles in 54 hours. "I tried to do everything I could not to show signs of fatigue."
Goumandakoye said he paced behind Barba and a few recruits during the march, and he did not want fall out and upset his senior drill instructor.
"I think boot camp was a little harder for him because he was injured," said Barba. "He still wanted to go to (physical training) and drill, but I wouldn't let him because it would have made his injury worse. I knew it frustrated him to stay back."
According to Goumandakoye, boot camp is not as hard as people make it out to be: "All you have to do is listen. I listen to my drill instructors. They are not gods, but more like angels. Angels lead and teach you the way drill instructors do.
"This is the best experience I have ever had. It showed me what I was capable of. It also taught me an important life lesson: to never quit. Never."
Said Barba: "He made a sacrifice just coming here. His dream was to become a Marine, and he did what he had to do in order to do it. That says a lot about a person."
Following his father's advice six years ago, Goumandakoye remembered two words - hotel and cab - when he came to America. Today, as he graduates as a private first class, the Marine Corps offers two more: Semper and Fidelis.
Staff Sgt. Scott Dunn contributed to this report.