FORT BRAGG, N.C. - As an 8-year-old boy, sitting on the roof of a friend's house in war-torn Haiti in 1994, Claudy Bellanger saw a sight that captured his imagination: helicopters speeding past carrying American soldiers.
"I'd never seen them with my own eyes before," said Bellanger, "only on television."
His boyhood experiences with U.S. troops in his home country set him on a path that eventually led him to join the United States Army.
Today, Bellanger, 23, is a Specialist assigned to A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
His journey began in Jacmel, Haiti, where he was born and lived for the first 18 years of his life.
For much of his childhood, Haiti was a military dictatorship. The government took money away from its citizens, who couldn't afford to buy food or go to school, Bellanger said.
"As a third world country it's pretty rough to live there," he said.
He recalled participating in protests against the government as a young boy, waving tree branches in the air and yelling. At these riots, the government's paramilitary police force, the Makout, would gas the crowds. The larger the crowds became, the more people were hurt or killed.
U.S. forces were called into the country by President Bill Clinton in September 1994 as part of Operation Restore Democracy. The goal of the operation was to end human rights abuses against the people of Haiti and reinstate the democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
On September 18, 1994, Haitian leaders learned that Troopers with the "All American" 82nd Airborne Division were on their way to conduct a parachute assault into Haiti. They quickly agreed to give up power, and the aircraft carrying the Paratroopers returned to Fort Bragg.
Later, Soldiers from the 82nd's 3rd Battalion, 73rd Armor Regiment deployed to the country to support the peacekeeping operation.
Bellanger had several memorable interactions with the soldiers while they were in Haiti.
He remembers eating his first MRE: Beef.
"I think that was the best meal," he said.
"It was good compared to what I was eating."
A more significant experience came when Bellanger approached two American Soldiers on guard duty and asked how he too could join the U.S. Army. One of the soldiers gave him a recruiting business card and Bellanger ran home to make the call.
He was told that, in addition to being too young, he needed to become a U.S. citizen. And that's what he did.
At the age of 18, he left Haiti to live with his father in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he spent two years learning English and earned his GED.
"I didn't want to waste any time," he said.
He called the number on that business card that he had kept for 12 years and joined the Army at last.
"I was so focused and determined to make it that I did everything that I could," Bellanger said.
"I just wanted to be in the Army," he said.
"Now I'm in the 82nd. It's a dream come true."