By T. Anthony BellOctober 23, 2007
FORT LEE, Va. (American Forces Press Service, Oct. 23, 2007) - Spc. Momo S. Larmena Jr. has made a life out of giving back to his country, first to his native Liberia and now to the United States, his adopted country.
Spc. Larmena, 42, joined the U.S. Army Reserves six months ago as a way to repay the debt he feels he owes to the American Soldier who saved his life in Liberia.
The 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. More than 200,000 people were killed in what became a 14-year civil war, and thousands became refugees.
Spc. Larmena's 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 Spc. 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.
"I went from sleeping on a mattress to sleeping on dirt," Spc. Larmena recalled. "But I didn't let that bother me. I looked at the opportunity in the situation."
The opportunity lay in helping his fellow countrymen. Spc. Larmena said he became a leader at the camp and worked make life better for everyone there. He established a humanitarian service organization called Assistance for All, which among other activities 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," Spc. Larmena said.
Under a refugee resettlement program, Spc. Larmena, his mother and eight siblings resettled in Sacramento, Calif., in 1998 after spending eight years in the camp.
In 2000, Spc. Larmena returned to Liberia to secure and renovate the family home.
"They had elections, and I believed the war had ended," he said.
During his four-year stay in Liberia, Spc. 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 Liberia was more stable, rebel groups were still active, as Spc. Larmena found 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," Spc. Larmena said. "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. Suddenly, Spc. Larmena said, the men began yelling "Get rid of him!" meaning Spc. Larmena, and be began pulling weapons from the trunk of the vehicle.
The group had targeted Spc. Larmena because he didn't speak a local tribal vernacular. Liberians who don't speak in a native tongue are considered Americo-Liberian.
"The same rebels that killed my father had targeted me," said Spc. Larmena, recalling how he and his sons ran into the house where he was able to call the United Nations where he was employed.
Shortly thereafter, a man in civilian clothes showed up with a vehicle and driver.
Spc. Larmena knew the man to be a U.S. Army Soldier. The Soldier and the driver whisked Spc. Larmena and his sons, Kwesi and Jusu, away to safety at a hotel. They had narrowly escaped the same fate as Spc. Larmena's father.
A few days later, Spc. Larmena was on a plane headed for Sacramento for the second time in his life. His sons joined him two years later.
Spc. 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 who came to get him. "This country is my home country now, so I must be able to give back to my country."
While in Sacramento, Spc. Larmena started his new life by 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 Spc. Larmena earned accolades from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and President George W. Bush.
From a personal standpoint, Spc. Larmena's community service efforts did not seem like enough to repay the debt he felt he owed, so he tried to join the Army in 2005, only to be 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 Spc. Larmena.
Currently an advanced individual training student assigned to Company A, 244th QM Battalion, 23rd QM Brigade at Fort Lee, Va., Spc. Larmena's journey to becoming Soldier is fraught with tragedy and triumph.
As a 42-year-old in AIT, Spc. Larmena is an elder statesman among the typical 19 and 20-years-olds. However, Soldiers like Pfc. Kwame Stover, Spc. Larmena's "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 Spc. 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, Spc. Larmena's 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."
Spc. 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.