BY SUSIE CURRIE — When Alfred Kollie walked into the U.S. Army recruiting office on Belcrest Center Drive in 2010, he knew more than most what the future might bring.
At the time, he was managing a store in the nearby mall and attending Prince George’s Community College part-time. But just three years earlier, he and his family had been living in a refugee camp in Ghana while civil wars ravaged his native Liberia.
“When I told the recruiter where I was from, he asked whether I was willing to go back to war, because that’s where I was headed,” said Kollie, now 27 and serving in Afghanistan. “I told him as long as I got paid and had money for school, I’d go.”
Kollie spent eight years — most of his childhood — in the camp with his family.
“Over there, being 10, you’re not really young anymore,” he recalled recently, sitting at a picnic table in a small, wooden hut on a hot summer night. “They had 6-year-old rebels walking around with AK-47s, killing innocent people. [The rebels would] kill their families and take the boys and compel them to join.”
The future in Liberia, to put it mildly, looked bleak.
“All we prayed for was to come to America,” Kollie said. When his father became ill, the family of 12 feared for more than his life.
“If he died while we were in the refugee camps, we were never going to come to the United States,” he said. “If the head of the family dies in the process [of relocating], the entire family stays back. You’re done. It happened to a lot of families over there.”
But on June 14, 2007, the news came that they’d be leaving for the United States within weeks as part of a resettlement program.
“I ran to the church, and all I could do was praise God,” said Kollie. “Everybody in the family couldn’t believe it. It was like a miracle.”
That July, the family arrived in Louisiana, where they stayed with a relative. Kollie, then 22, got a factory job packaging chicken spices.
In 2008, he and his sister Saba decided to strike out on their own. They came to Hyattsville and found an apartment on Queens Chapel Road, where Saba still lives.
Kollie landed a job at Jimmy Jazz in the Mall at Prince Georges, eventually becoming a manager. But what he really wanted was a college degree, and community college, even part time, was putting too much of a strain on his budget.
Then he heard about the G.I. Bill, and thought it might be the answer. Since childhood, Kollie had been fascinated with the military lifestyle — although not that of the rebel armies he grew up avoiding in his own country.
“They’re not an organized fighting force. There’s a lot of abuse, and I didn’t want … that situation,” he said. “Once I found myself in a country where the military is widely respected, and the military would provide shelter and food, pay me to do what I enjoy and pay me to go to school, I decided to join. It was a win-win situation for me.”
He joined the Army in September 2010 and went to Afghanistan a year later with the 82nd Airborne Division. As a petroleum-supply specialist, he provides aviation support to ground forces. His office is, essentially, a full-service gas station for aircraft: His team receives, stores, filters and pumps hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel. They work in 12-hour shifts, day and night, hot or cold, keeping the “birds” in the air.
Kollie has gained a reputation in his unit for his work ethic, attention to detail, and, according to others in his unit, for his one-man crusade against “wastefulness.”
“Where I’m from, you just can’t waste stuff,” he explained. “Like I was telling my sergeant today, someone said ‘That food’s been sitting over there for a while, [so] it’s not good anymore,’ and I told him I was going to eat it [anyway]. There were days in the camps when you knew the food wasn’t good, but … you had to eat it, or you weren’t going to eat at all.”
Stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., Kollie hopes “to attend any good college in North Carolina” when his 12-month tour is finished.
“I wish we were home, but the mission comes first,” he said.
Eventually, he says, “I want to establish a family in the United States, and my dream is to give my family what I didn’t have. My entire youth was taken away.”
And yes, that means he intends to come back here.
“I would love to settle down in Hyattsville,” he said, “the day I am done with the military. ”
With reporting by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon, a U.S. Army public affairs officer who travels across eastern Afghanistan covering aviation Soldiers and missions.