Face of Defense: Soldier Recalls Long Road to Guard Service
By Army Capt. William Martin
California National Guard
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Feb. 6, 2014 The U.S. Consulate in Nigeria is more island than institution. Centered in the most exclusive section of Lagos, a booming city in Africa’s most populous nation, the mission reflects both the affluence and strength one would expect from a superpower.
Wilson Ugah, then a second lieutenant in the California Army National Guard, attends a family appreciation event with his wife, Olga, and children, Sofia and Rian, at Fort Sill, Okla., in 2010. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
To approach the U.S. seal that adorns its entrance is to pass through well-armed guards and manicured lawns. It was here, in 1996, that 25-year-old Wilson Ugah determined he would claim his birthright as a U.S. citizen.
Ugah’s initial stay in the United States was short-lived. His father, a Nigerian infantry officer, was training alongside U.S. forces at Fort Benning, Ga., when his wife gave birth to Wilson in 1975. Less than a year later, the Ugah family was back in Africa, where his father wasted no time moving up the ranks of the Nigerian army.
By 1985, Ugah’s father was a battalion commander in the nation’s northern region. Wilson and the rest of the family enjoyed the relative luxury of a senior officer’s quarters, including the security offered by several armed guards throughout the evenings. In the mornings, one armed guard typically remained to keep watch over the Ugah family.
Aug. 27 was strikingly different.
“I woke up that morning … and 15 soldiers showed up,” said Ugah, who was 10 years old then. “I remember that morning Mom was trying to get to the guest house, and the soldiers wouldn’t let her leave.”
With his father away on duty, Ugah and his family grew restless in the confinement of this unexpected prison, submerged in worry and ignorance. By mid-morning, a helicopter landed carrying his father, who emerged only long enough to grab his uniform before disappearing for the rest of the day. It wasn’t until 6 p.m. that he returned and announced to the family there had been a coup, and he had been ordered by the nation’s new regime to stay home until told to do otherwise.
“My younger brother [asked], ‘What is a coup?’” Ugah remembered. “Everybody was anxious, but the night passed quietly.”
It was only in reading the morning newspaper that Ugah’s father learned he had been forcibly retired. Though bloodless, the coup went a long way in draining life from the 15-year veteran of the Nigerian armed forces.
“He took it pretty hard. He really wasn’t himself for years,” Ugah said of his father. “He really had no plans for anything outside the military.”
Amid his despondency, Wilson’s father failed to maintain critical records regarding his travels and family, something that would haunt Wilson upon graduating a Lagos high school in 1996.
“About that time, I was deciding what I was going to do,” Ugah said, when a family member suggested possibilities open to him if he could just get his hands on a U.S. passport.
Carrying only a U.S. birth certificate and the American dream, Ugah approached what at the time was the U.S. embassy in Lagos to seize his birthright. But the gauntlet of guards proved as uncompromising in action as they were in appearance.
“The biggest issue people have is getting by the guys at the gate,” Ugah said. “It would take me about two hours to get there, and I would go every day [only to be turned away for lack of identification].”
After four months of daily attempts, Ugah said, “the guard finally got sick of seeing me [and let me go in.]”
The obstacles that awaited Ugah inside proved even less forgiving. Every bit the Nigerian in mannerisms and appearance, his American citizenship made for a tough sell to U.S. officials.
“All I have here is a birth certificate and a body, and somehow I have to connect these two together,” Ugah remembers being told by a skeptical consular official.
They handed Ugah a task list that would have defeated a lesser man. It he secure a new birth certificate from the United States, provide photographs from nearly every stage of his life and present any paperwork that would prove he was, indeed, the son of the Nigerian infantry officer.
In 2000 — after three years constructing a paper trail proving he was a son of the United States — Ugah was granted a U.S. passport.
With a mere $300 in his pocket but ambition to spare, Ugah hitched himself to a Canadian oilman who had befriended Ugah’s mother during business in Nigeria. The family friend was headed to the Western United States in September 2000, and he offered his Alta, Calif., cabin to Ugah until he got on his feet in his new homeland. The cabin was so remote that it lacked power, depending only on an unreliable generator.
“I called my brother, who told me they didn’t have power [in Nigeria],” Ugah said. “I told him I didn’t have power either, and he said ‘Are you doing drugs, already? It’s not possible. You’re in the U.S.’”
With a rich heritage of military service coursing through his veins, Ugah almost immediately made his way to the nearest armed forces recruiter. He chose the Marine Corps, in large part due to its association with the U.S. Navy. “For people outside the U.S., the might of the U.S. military comes in the form of the Navy,” he explained.
That November, Ugah found himself lined up on the infamous yellow footprints at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, where drill instructors promised to transform him into a Marine or die trying. The transformation for Ugah, however, went smoother than for most.
“I had seen things kids didn’t experience over here,” said Ugah, who suffered intense corporal punishment and hazing at the hands of his peers in Nigeria’s British-based boarding schools. “Someone yelling at me [in boot camp], … I wouldn’t be afraid.”
Though his high aptitude-test scores allowed him to choose any military occupation, Ugah again honored his family heritage by becoming an infantryman. His training took him to Japan, Australia and Hawaii, and it was in Honolulu that his life would be changed forever, along with the rest of America.
“We were off on patrol early in the morning, and the patrols were called back,” said Ugah, recalling his training on Sept. 11, 2001. “The officer asked if anyone was from New York, and there was one guy, and he handed him his phone so he could call his family. We had to run back to base because they were locking it down, and we got the full story of what happened. [The 9/11 attacks] were just horrible to watch.”
Ugah’s immediate response to the attacks, like that of most patriots, was “Hey, let’s go to war.” But it would be a few years before his desire to trade blows with insurgents was realized amid the urban chaos of Iraq.
In 2004, Ugah found himself at Camp Snakepit, a company-sized outpost in Ramadi, Iraq, that offered none of the celebrated comforts of the massive U.S. installations that would later populate the country. Instead of Baskin-Robbins ice cream and salsa dance nights, the space was filled by “a place to sleep, a place to wash, a toilet, a chow hall — that’s all you get,” Ugah said.
If war was Ugah’s trade of choice, he soon would ply it in earnest. With President George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration and the traditional war behind them, Ugah and the rest of the U.S. forces found themselves in the thick of a maddening insurgency. The Marine battalion his unit replaced had suffered death or injury to about 50 percent of its men during its tour. “Not a friendly crowd,” Ugah recalled.
Only one week into his deployment, Ugah found himself rolling down the recently christened Route Michigan in an armored vehicle when “everything just went black.” The Marines in the vehicle behind Ugah “swore [my] entire vehicle went up in a ball of flames,” he said.
Ugah exited his charred carriage and sized up the scene. Blood-soaked streets, decapitated bodies once belonging to insurgents, screaming Marines and enemy fire from all directions made for a sobering crash course in reality. “It was a hell of a welcome.”
Though he escaped his initial brush with death, Ugah soon would lose a close friend to combat, repeatedly gain promotions due to others’ injuries as much as his own merit, and work his way through a number of ambushes and close calls. Still, when Ugah ruminates on his time in Iraq, he exhibits an optimism and resilience that his time with the Marines exposed more than forged.
“We were always on the offensive,” Ugah said. “We had a few more KIAs, but it ended up being a good deployment. We killed a lot of bad guys. We brought some safety and stability to that place.”
It soon became evident that Ugah’s dogged spirit translated beyond battles with embassy bureaucracies and Iraqi insurgents. Wanting some stability to pursue his education, Ugah became an embassy security guard with the Marines, a gig that begged “full circle.”
During an embassy social event in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a striking “lady in red” made her entrance, snapping the heads of Ugah and other socially starved Marines. Quickly sensing they were out of their league, the other Marines chose to admire from afar. In Ugah’s case, however, social challenges triggered his courage as much as Ramadi firefights.
“No one was talking to her, so I did the smart thing and went and talked to her mom,” said Ugah, beaming with pride over his innovative approach. “Once the mom introduces you to her daughter, you know you’re in.”
Ugah’s social instincts were keen, as the woman of interest was also the daughter of the embassy’s local guard chief, and she was studying to become a physician. It wasn’t long before Olga and Wilson fell in love and found themselves married with a child, eager to make their way to the United States. The process of gaining entry for Olga left Wilson shaking his head in both delight and disbelief.
“It took her only three days to get an immigrant visa,” said Ugah, remembering his three-year ordeal in securing his American birthright.
Once home, Ugah pursued his education in earnest, and soon set his sights on an officer’s commission. Too old to become an active duty Marine officer, he learned of the Army National Guard and its diverse commissioning programs. He ultimately separated from the Marines and became a second lieutenant after two months in the accelerated Officer Candidate School.
Bouncing between several lackluster civilian jobs, including a stint as an insurance agent — “Of course, I didn’t sell anything, so I didn’t get paid” — Ugah finally found full-time work at the state military department, where he excels today as the California’s ammunition manager.
His aspirations, however, include a position for which he seems ideally suited: liaison officer for the California National Guard in Nigeria, one of two nations, along with Ukraine, with which the California Guard shares a state partnership program.
“It’s something I’d really love to do,” Ugah said. “I lived there for 25 years [and] have ties with their military through my family. … I understand the people, understand the language, understand the culture.”
Despite his international goals and experience — he traveled to more than 30 nations during his time with the Marine Corps — Ugah is quick to affirm that his heart rests with the United States, the nation of his birth.
“I am an American,” Ugah said. “It is home.”