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Face of Defense: Refugee Becomes Marine to Repay Debt to Nation

By Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Achilles Tsantarliotis
Special to American Forces Press Service

KARMAH, Iraq, Dec. 15, 2008 – A deployed Marine lived through a war as a child, but he did not hesitate years later when it came time to defend the freedom he and his family almost lost.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Marine Corps Cpl. Bajro Buzaljko, 21, an ammunition technician with Regimental Combat Team 1’s Task Force 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, performs a function test on a weapon to ensure its operability in Iraq. After fleeing war-torn Bosnia as a child, Buzaljko joined the Marines to defend the country that accepted him and his family with open arms. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Achilles Tsantarliotis
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Marine Corps Cpl. Bajro Buzaljko, 21, an ammunition technician serving with Regimental Combat Team 1’s Task Force 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, first experienced war as a child in Bosnia.

When Bosnia erupted into civil war in the early 1990s, Buzaljko’s mixed Muslim-Catholic family’s life in Stolac was shattered. The Croatian military placed his father and uncle into a concentration camp, leaving his mother alone to care for Buzaljko and his baby brother.

Buzaljko said he cherishes memories of Bosnia prior to the civil war. He described the country as having a scenic environment with lush fields and streams. The erupting violence was completely contradictory of everything he remembered up to that point, he said.

“Before the war, it was a beautiful place,” he said. “We would always play and have so much fun. It is full of history and had gorgeous scenery. Then one day, tanks and [troops] came through our town.”

Not until mortars began falling in the town did Buzaljko realize the danger his home, and everything he knew, was in.

“My mother tried her best to keep me unaware of the violence surrounding us,” Buzaljko said. “One day we were getting ready to escape the city, and we were covering the lights on our car to avoid detection. All of a sudden everyone started running; it was chaos. I heard this loud whistling, and all of a sudden, boom! My school was gone.”

Buzaljko’s father and uncle spent a year doing hard labor with scarce food until United Nations officials helped to free them. When his mother woke him up to tell him his father was home, Buzaljko did not recognize him.

“I saw him standing in front of me, and I didn’t know who he was,” Buzaljko said. “He had several shirts on, and I could still see his bones through his clothing.”

Bosnian soldiers running the concentration camp allowed only prisoners nearing death to go home.

After Buzaljko’s family reunited, U.N. officials told them they could go wherever they wished. They wanted to go to America.

“We moved to New York, and my family started rebuilding our lives,” Buzaljko said. “In Bosnia, my family was established. We had good jobs, financial security, everything we needed. It was taken away.”

Buzaljko grew up appreciating life in Utica, N.Y., quickly accepting it as his new home and thoroughly enjoying the land of opportunity.

“It was great,” he said. “Even as we were leaving Bosnia, they told my mother she could stay, but the children could not, since she came from a mixed marriage of Catholicism and Muslim. In America, that never even came up.”

Buzaljko’s interest in the military started in high school, where he was actively involved in the Junior ROTC program. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Buzaljko said, he knew he would take his interest further, and joined the Marine Corps after graduation.

“When we were attacked, it just made me feel like my home was being attacked again,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. That was the final factor in my decision to join. I wanted to go help fellow Americans.”

During Buzaljko’s first deployment -- to Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines -- he discovered another aspect of his service.

“When I got there, I realized not only was I doing my part for a country that took me in and helped my family, but I was helping other people in need, just like [the U.N.] helped me when my family was in trouble.”

Buzaljko’s care and concern have carried over to his deployment here.

It says a lot about someone to go back to a similar environment they left under such unfavorable circumstances, said Marine Corps Cpl. Matthew Clay, 23, a logistics operations center watch chief with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines. “Anyone who’s lived through a war and volunteered to go back has a lot of courage. I have a lot of respect for him.”

Despite the hardships Buzaljko’s family endured to leave their war-torn home, they remain supportive of their son and his service to their new country.

“I am very proud; you can’t even imagine,” his mother, Vesna Buzaljko, said. “He joined to say ‘thank you’ to the [United States] for welcoming us with open arms. It was a tough time when we left, but America took us in and saved our family. Now he has a purpose to help others like we were helped when we needed it, and we are so proud.”

(Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Achilles Tsantarliotis serves with Regimental Combat Team 1.)

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