Sudan ‘Lost Boy’ serves as Kadena NCO
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- "At the age of 10, I have seen death; I have buried other kids - at the age of 10," he said, a sadness moving into his eyes. "But at the same time, I've rebounded. If I have to stay in that hole and think of those horrible situations I've been in, then I would not be here today."
Labeled a "Lost Boy" by the United Nations along with more than 30,000 other kids from Sudan in the mid-1980s, Madut Bul - now a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant working as a with the 33rd Helicopter Maintenance Unit supply specialist - had experienced what most can't imagine.
After civil war tore at the nation, young teenagers were thrust into battle wielding Russian-made AK-47 rifles against a domestic enemy. As a result, these Lost Boys, ranging in age from 7 to 17, were orphaned or separated from their families and forced to live the lives of refugees.
"In 1983, a war broke out in my country - the country was Sudan," he said, his face grim. "We did not have a family. I did not know where my family was. At that time when we were under the rebel groups who were fighting the government, if you were 13 years old, you were old enough to be able to have an AK-47 to go and fight."
As they fled east of the mayhem, they were pushed to neighboring countries seeking relief. However, they soon discovered that the first journey was fruitless.
"First, we went to Ethiopia, but they were having their civil war," Bul recounted. "At the time the war happened, they had to come back to the border of Sudan, then we had to go to Kenya. That's over a thousand miles. We were walking there by foot.
"We were over 30,000 kids," he continued. "There were a lot of kids that either died during the crossing over to come to Sudan, hunger or eaten by wild animals. At that time, the only food that we had was the food that we were carrying. They took a head count again ... we were at about almost 12,000."
With the help of humanitarian aid, a program was set up to relocate many of the children to foster homes in the Southeastern U.S. However, according to Bul, the extensive process proved too slow.
At the end of it all, only a lucky fraction of the refugees including Bul were given the opportunity to move to the U.S.
"Only 500 kids got to go to foster homes," Bul said. "Thirty-eight hundred made it to the United States - out of 30,000 ... and I was one of them."
But it wasn't over just yet. Five months after Bul and his friends arrived in Charlotte, N.C., 9/11 struck fear into the hearts of Americans. Without prior knowledge of U.S. capabilities, Bul and his friends were afraid their new home would soon resemble their last.
"When Sept. 11 happened, we did not have an idea of how strong the United States was, so our perception was that it looked like we were going to be running again," he explained. "Me and one of my friends, we are in the Air Force. Our perception was that we might want to have our AK-47s and be able to protect ourselves."
However, it was more than that which led to his enlistment. Instead, Bul recounted what he was most appreciative of while escaping the civil war in Sudan.
"At that time I had a lot of my family being killed," Bul said. "I did not have anything to help. My reason to join was that I want to help somebody. I want to be able to go out there and protect somebody. I know my country got independent in 2011, but it's because of a few people standing up in order to protect the majority of people.
"If you want to join any service that's protecting your community, I think it's a good, noble cause that all of us are able to stand up and protect our people," Bul continued. "You are not in for money; you are in to protect your country; you are in to protect your family. If you come in with that mindset, you will not disappoint yourself. It might not be easy, but it might be part of something bigger than yourself."
After first being denied enlistment due to not having a high school diploma, Bul charged forward and completed the education necessary to join. Now the eight-year veteran has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice - and his U.S. citizenship.
"I signed up for four years as open general, but I wanted to be security forces," Bul said. "I wasn't a citizen though, so I had to stay with supply."
Since joining the Air Force, he's moved forward in life and is currently on vacation getting married to his fiancée. He's since traveled back to the country and built homes, and the NCO has been sponsoring 23 kids in Sudan since 2011.
"It would be selfish of me to forget," he said. "The United States is awesome, and it's given me something that my country has not given me, but at the same time my country may have taught me something too: without somebody standing up for other people, somebody like me will not have a chance."
It's been a long, tough road, but even after all the hardships he endured as a kid, Bul said he won't forget where he came from. Instead, he uses it as a lesson in resiliency to others.
"I know all of us here have the courage to stand up for our country," he said. "I have to stay strong; you have to stay strong. We have to stay strong in order to move forward. A bad story makes us stronger. You have to rebound out of whatever you are in and know that there are other people out there that might have gone through a more difficult time that what you're going through."