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From Sierra Leone to America: Airman overcomes hardship, dreams to fly with United States Air Force

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Clinton Atkins
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
With allied wings of steel soaring high above him, battling enemy fighter jets to rid his native country of a terrible foe, a Sierra Leone native would be forever captivated by the beautiful aerial acrobatics, eventually joining the U.S. Air Force in pursuit of a dream in flying.

In 1998, the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, took control of Airman Albert "Charles" Lewis' hometown of Freetown, Sierra Leone, located on the West Africa coast.

Battles raged throughout Sierra Leone until 2000, when the RUF was finally knocked out of power by the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force, the West African Economic Community Monitoring Group and the Sierra Leone-backed Executive Outcomes, a private military organization.

"After the fighting was over, we had to survive hunger," said Airman Lewis, 66th Mission Support Squadron information manager. "But at least we had a 60 percent chance of not dying by gun."

In 2000, after witnessing the horrors of urban warfare, Airman Lewis left for the U.S., taking with him an interest in flying.

"When I came to the U.S., my mom had a friend from Ghana who was an ECOMOG fighter pilot," Airman Lewis said. "We used to talk about the war [in Sierra Leone] and I would tell him about what I saw and how I loved to watch the jets fly by."

Airman Lewis told his mother's friend about living in Sierra Leone and taking shelter with his sister and grandma for days to stay away from stray bullets and listen to the radio -- waiting for signs of hope that the fighting would soon stop.

During those dark and dreary days -- he was 15 at the time -- he said he would look for ways to keep his mind off of the destruction and bloodshed.

Allied fighter jets would come into his hometown; on a few occasions, he was able to witness aircraft maneuvers.

Even with bullets flying in every direction, Airman Lewis would peer out of a window of his home to see them. "The RUF would always fire at them with their AK-47s thinking they could hit the jets," he said.

"My [aunt] would hide us underneath the mattress," the Airman said. "The house that I lived in didn't have a solid roof and stray [rounds] would go through [the roof]," Airman Lewis said.

One day, he recalls being home alone when three allied fighter planes zoomed into the city.

One plane headed to destroy the main military base, while the other two kept flying in almost circles around the town's telecom station.

Despite the AK-47 gun fire around him, he stood on the veranda watching the jets.

"I kept watching them until I noticed one of them coming extremely low to the ground," Airman Lewis said. "I was scared, but I wanted to see, and all of a sudden, I found my face planted to the ground by an explosion."

Luckily, he was not injured.

After all of the fighting was over, Airman Lewis' aunt sent him to Senegal to get a Visa so he could live with his mother in the U.S.

"My aunt wanted a better life for me, so she sent me to the U.S. to live with my mom," he said.

Years later, while in the U.S., the memory of that day encouraged him to do research about becoming a pilot. "The setback is that I'm not a citizen," he said.

During his research, Airman Lewis found that he needed to be a U.S. citizen in order to be eligible to become an officer, (who are the only military personnel authorized to fly.)

Following his graduation from high school in Ontario, Calif., in 2002, he found himself still drawn to flying.

After taking some college classes, he decided to join the Air Force.

He believed that completing his education in the Air Force afforded him the best chance to realize his goal to fly.

Airman Lewis went to Basic Military Training in February, and arrived here in June, after completing technical training at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

Though he is an information manager now, he has not yet given up on his dream to become a pilot.

"I get excited every time I see [planes]," Airman Lewis said. "My greatest desire is to become an Air Force fighter pilot.

Airman Lewis knows he still has to become a U.S. citizen and earn a bachelor's degree before he is even considered for the pilot training program.

He believes his fierce determination can overcome any obstacle in his path.

He is currently working toward obtaining his U.S. citizenship and hopes to receive it sometime in the next year.

"The closer I get to my goal, the more I think about it," Airman Lewis said.

"Growing up in Sierra Leone, my goal was to just survive," he said. "But now my goal is to fly."

"Everyone in the Air Force has a chance to climb to the top -- it all depends on your ability and how bad you want to develop," Airman Lewis said. "If you are willing to work hard for what you want, the opportunities are endless."