Two years ago, a Russian-born U.S. Marine, Alexander Presman, was a volunteer in the first contingent of American troops sent to topple Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Now he's back in New York, with an artificial leg, planning to get on with life as a civilian.
"We were shipped out in January of 2003 and spent a couple of months in Kuwait. When the war started, we were sent to Iraq,” he says. “I used to be stationed in Ad Diwaniyah, providing security and communications to different camps.”
Alex Presman's most distinguishing feature is his vivid blue eyes. He is of medium height, medium build, dressed in the ubiquitous young man's uniform of blue jeans and leather jacket. His limp is hardly noticeable.
“On the convoy to Baghdad we stopped for a break, and I came out of the truck and I stepped on a land mine. It took off my left foot and a chunk of the muscle of my right calf,” he recalled. “It was a kind of a shock, and a lot of pain, and it took a while for the helicopter to medically evacuate me, and …. It was kind of painful, but you know, it's war…”
According to newspaper accounts, Alex Presman was flown out of Baghdad still wearing a bloody hospital gown. He was sent for treatment to a Washington-area military hospital, where he was fitted with an artificial leg, and trained to walk on it. After his rehabilitation, he retired from the Marine Corps with the rank of sergeant. Alex Presman says he has no regrets about his service in Iraq.
“I'm proud to be a part of that,” he says. “I'm happy, you know, that I did what I did. I loved the military, I loved the lifestyle and I'm going to miss it."
Mr. Presman's path to the U.S. Marines began in Minsk, Byelorusia, where until he was 16 and left for the United States he lived the ordinary life of a Russian boy. Even in far-away Minsk, he says, he had a mental image of America, but it was based on the limited popular culture that was available to young people in the Soviet Union.
“Land of opportunity, something big, desirable,” he says, remembering. “I mean, I watched the movies, everything was from the movies. Arnold Schwartzenegger movies, and, you know, The Godfather. Something I never dreamt of was coming here, I didn't know I was going to end up in America. But life turned out that way, and I'm happy about it.”
Mr. Presman immigrated to the United States in 1994 to join his mother, who had come two years earlier as a Jewish refugee. She had settled in a section of the New York borough of Brooklyn populated by Russian immigrants. Alex Presman remembers arriving in New York.
“I saw my mom at the airport with balloons saying 'Welcome to America', and that was nice," he says. "A lot of big cars, and lot of people. Everything was different and nice. I didn't have a chance to go to the city for about two weeks - you know, Brooklyn is kind of different from Manhattan - but the first time I got to Manhattan I was shocked. There is no other place like New York City at night. The huge buildings, and the lights, and the people, there's just no words to describe it. It's amazing."
Getting used to a new language and a new culture required some adjustment, Alex Presman says, but living in a heavily Russian and Russian-Jewish community helped with the transition. He attended high school, and found an after-school job in a clothing store. Soon after graduating he fulfilled a childhood dream and enlisted in the military - in the Marines, he says, because they are the best. He says the fact that he was an immigrant, or Russian, or Jewish was never a factor in his experience as a Marine.
"Marines, they don't care about your race, ethnic background, or religion, anything,” he says. "It's just… If you're a good Marine, you're a good Marine, and you're accepted as part of the brotherhood."
As a wounded veteran, Alex Presman has a pension, as well as a military stipend to continue his education. He is studying finance and criminal justice at Pace University in New York. His goal is eventually to have a job in law enforcement, working for the government. Alex Presman became a U.S. citizen even before joining the Marines. For him, being an American has a special meaning.
"It's just doing what you're supposed to do," he says. “Being able to speak what you want to speak. Everything is up to you. You have the opportunity. It's all up to you if you want to grab your chance.
If you want to go to school, you go to school, if you want to do something else, you do something else. I wanted to become a U.S. citizen, and I waited five years, just like everybody else, and applied. I was proud - and, you know, happy.”
On August 2, 2003 - his 26th birthday, while still in the hospital, Russian immigrant and new American Alex Presman received the Military Order of the Purple Heart and was visited by President George W. Bush.
NOTE: VOA reporter Adam Phillips in New York conducted the interview with Alex Presman.