FORT LEE, Va. -- Spc. Momo S. Larmena Jr. has made a life of giving back.

He once headed the Red Cross in his native country, is founder and chief executive officer of a very successful community outreach program and is currently a single parent to six foster children.

So when a U.S. Army Soldier rescued him from certain death, he felt he had to repay a debt - through serving the country of the Soldier who saved his life.

"I'm showing my gratitude," he said, having enlisted in the Army Reserve six months ago. "I'm committed to the Army. It's something I want to do."

Currently an advanced individual training student assigned to Company A, 244th QM Battalion, 23rd QM Brigade at Fort Lee, Va., Larmena's journey to becoming Soldier is fraught with tragedy and triumph.

The 42-year-old former chemist had his first brush with tragedy in 1990 in his native Liberia, a small West African country settled by free American blacks in 1821.

His father, Momo Larmena Sr., was killed by rebels intent on seizing power from the Americo-Liberians, a ruling class descended from the former Americans.

The 14-year civil war in the country that began in 1990 resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 people and hundreds of thousands displaced, including Larmena's family.

"My dad was killed and the family fled to Ghana," he said. "We stayed in Ghana eight years."

That wasn't eight years in the lap of luxury. It was eight years in the Buduburam Refugee Camp near the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Thousands of displaced citizens - many of them traumatized by the war's violence - made the camp their home.

"I went from sleeping on a mattress to sleeping on dirt," he recalled. "But I didn't let that bother me. I looked at the opportunity in the situation."

The opportunity was in helping his countrymen. Larmena said he was a leader at the camp and lent himself to making life better for everyone there. He established a humanitarian service organization called Assistance For All, which among other things awarded scholarships for youth to study abroad. Service to humanity, he said, had always been a catalyst for his actions.

"There's something in me that's pushing me to do things for people," he said.
Larmena said that more than 100 youth received scholarships through the organization to study in other countries.

Under a refugee resettlement program, Larmena, his mother and eight siblings resettled in Sacramento, Calif. in 1998 after eight years in the camp. Two years later, Larmena returned to Liberia to secure and renovate the family home.

"They had elections, and I believed the war had ended," he recalled.

During his four-year stay in Liberia, Larmena became secretary general of the Liberia Red Cross Society, worked as a chemistry lecturer at Cuttington University and as an administrator with the disarmament program of the United Nations Mission in Liberia.
Although the country had returned to stability, rebel groups were still active. Larmena found this out in March 2004 while waiting for workmen to show up at his family's home in the Liberian capital of Monrovia.

"There were some guys standing near a taxi outside my home," he recalled. "I asked if there was a problem because I thought they had a fault with the vehicle."

But there were no mechanical problems; the men were on a mission to kill. They suddenly began yelling, "Get rid of him!" recalled Larmena, noting that they began pulling weapons from the trunk of the vehicle.

The group had targeted Larmena because he didn't speak a local tribal vernacular.

Liberians who don't speak in a native tongue are considered Americo-Liberian (Larmena said he is the maternal great grandson of Liberia's fourth president, Richmond native James Spriggs Payne, a first generation Americo-Liberian).

"My kids and I ran in the house, and I was able to call the United Nations (where he worked at the time)," he said.

Shortly thereafter, a man in civilian clothes showed up with a vehicle and driver.

Larmena knew the man to be a U.S. Army Soldier. The two men whisked Larmena and his sons, Kwesi and Jusu, away to safety at a hotel. They had narrowly escaped the same fate as Larmena's father.

"The same rebels that killed my father had targeted me," said Larmena.

A few days later, Larmena was on a plane headed for Sacramento. His sons joined him two years later.

Larmena said his survival was the work of God.

"I don't consider myself a lucky man," he said. "I consider myself a blessed man."

But he said he owes his life to the Soldier who risked his own to save the lives of others.
"If it wasn't for the U.S. Army, I wouldn't be here," he said, referring to the heroic efforts of the Soldier. "This country is my home country now, so I must be able to give back to my country."

While in Sacramento, Larmena went about his life trying to save lives. He reestablished his community outreach program and helped numerous disadvantaged children acquire computer skills and receive AIDS/HIV education. The program was such a success that
Larmena earned accolades from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and President George W. Bush.

From a personal standpoint, Larmena's community service efforts apparently weren't enough to repay his debt, so he tried to join the Army in 2005. He was told he was too old. When the age limit was moved up in 2006, he was ready to sign on the dotted line.
"I enlisted May 7 and found myself in basic training on my 42nd birthday," said Larmena.

As a 42-year-old in AIT, Larmena is an elder statesman among the typical 19 and 20-years-olds. However, Soldiers like Pfc. Kwame Stover of New York City, his battle buddy, has no trouble bridging the gap.

"I didn't think someone like him and me, being 19 (could get along), but I found that he really is a good guy because he's always helping," he said, noting that Larmena has taught many of his fellow Soldiers how earn promotion points. "There's definitely something about him."

His drill sergeant thinks so as well.

"He's very motivated," said Staff Sgt. Kelly Foster, a Co. A drill sergeant. "I think the fact that he saw his life flash before him when he was attacked by the rebels has motivated him to live every moment like it's his last and be the best at everything he does."

Larmena recently earned the distinguished honor graduate title in his AIT class. He said his future plans are to eventually become an officer, enter the intelligence career field and continue to impact lives.

'Roots' In Reverse
Many African Americans have sought to find their roots in Africa, but name changes and lack of records have made it extremely difficult. An exception is those African Americans related to the several thousand free blacks who migrated back to Africa in the 1800s to establish the country of Liberia.

Or the other way around.

Spc. Momo Larmena, a Liberian of Mandinka and African Amerian lineage, said that he is the maternal great grandson of Richmond, Va., native James Spriggs Payne, Liberia's fourth and eighth president.

Larmena's said he never thought that he would wind up in the United States only a few miles from where his ancestors lived. He has a made an effort to find other descendants but hasn't been successful. He is continuing his efforts. By the way, Liberia's first president, J.J. Roberts, is a native of Petersburg, Va.

(T. Anthony Bell writes for the Fort Lee Traveller.)