From Cameroonian Soldier To American Airman
by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Natalie Fiorilli
November 16, 2022
“My only solution was to get out.”
In September 2015, Bertrand Bucuka, a staff sergeant serving in the Cameroon Special Forces, gathered his military gear and changed into civilian clothes. From there, he traveled by bus for the next three days - heading to the nearest airport.
November 9, 2022 - U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Bertrand Bucuka, an aerospace medical service specialist assigned to the 1st Special Operations Medical Group at Hurlburt Field, Florida shared his story of gaining asylum in the U.S. and joining the Air Force. Previously, Bucuka served as a staff sergeant in the Cameroon Special Forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Natalie Fiorilli)
“I knew that if I were caught, I would spend the rest of my life in jail, or be killed,” Bucuka said.
When he first enlisted in the Cameroon Armed Forces in 2009, Bucuka decided to pursue the military with the intention of serving his country. In his seven years of service, Bucuka worked in several roles, including infantry and communications, as well as an explosives ordinance disposal instructor.
Being from an English-speaking region of Cameroon, Bucuka also worked as an English and French translator, and worked with U.S. military personnel.
In this particular role, his commanding officers would often ask him to spy on the American troops. Feeling that their request was unethical, Bucuka said he refused to obey those orders, and added that building a trusting relationship in the field of EOD is critical.
“In the field of explosives, the first mistake is always the last,” Bucuka said.
In another instance, Bucuka’s leadership once again tested his ethics when he was ordered to execute an unarmed, injured man in Nigeria. Instead, he decided to seek help from a U.S. combat medic to help him save the man’s life.
“At the time, I knew that my decision to save one life might have cost me mine,” he said.
As Bucuka continued to deal with difficult decisions, and faced growing scrutiny from his commanding officers, he knew his life was at risk.
“It was time to either leave the country or stay in the military and die,” Bucuka said.
During his travels from Cameroon, Bucuka faced a number of challenges, including being denied entry in Ecuador. With help from a stranger he met along his travels, Bucuka gained assistance from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and eventually gained entry in Peru.
He would go on to travel for the next six months - through South America and Central America. In those six months, he endured a number of life-threatening situations, as he attempted to cross borders, sometimes with the help of smugglers.
Additionally, in some countries, he was arrested and detained at the border, but was later released after explaining his story.
In February 2017, Bucuka arrived at the United States - Mexico border, near San Diego. He explained his situation to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, and then worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to verify his case.
“[How I made it] is beyond human reason,” Bucuka said. “I just knew there was no turning back for me.”
Following a two month investigation, the officers released Bucuka and allowed him entry into the U.S. In 2018, the U.S. officially granted Bucuka asylum.
Now, he finds himself wearing another military uniform - this time for the United States Air Force.
For Bucuka, joining the Air Force was a way for him to thank everyone who helped him when he arrived in the United States, including a number of U.S. military members that he worked with in Africa.
“The only way I could show my gratitude to [those] who stood by me was by serving the flag of this nation,” Bucuka said. “I had no family, no relatives, and they remembered what I did for them in Africa, and came to my rescue here.”
Today, Airman 1st Class Bucuka, an enlisted aerospace medical service specialist, is assigned to the 1st Special Operations Medical Group at Hurlburt Field. In his role, Bucuka works with doctors and helps to provide care to patients at the base medical clinic.
Compared to his previous experiences in the Cameroon military, Bucuka says he never expected that someday he could end up working in a hospital setting.
“All I knew from my past experiences was being on the battlefield, but today I find myself working in the same place every day,” he said.
Along with serving his role in aerospace medical services, Bucuka also finds himself drawing from his past military experience in Africa.
As an Airman assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command, Bucuka often gets the opportunity to conduct briefings with special operations forces across a variety of career fields.
“The main objective is to share my experience and what the U.S. can do to better strengthen their relationship with Africa,” Bucuka said. “And it’s actually helped them carry out their mission successfully when they have deployed.”
Beyond the military, Bucuka hopes to always find an opportunity to serve others, and mentioned he wants to use his new-found medical skills to support humanitarian efforts.
Additionally, he says his future is now focused on his family, including his children who have joined him in Florida.
No matter what, he knows that his journey changed his life forever and has ultimately changed his outlook on life.
“I realize now that what is meant to be, will be, no matter what,” Bucuka said. “That’s how I live my life now.”
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