Perseverance: From war, refuge to the American dream

By Senior Airman Ariel Owings | Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs | Dec. 13, 2019

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. —

The term “the American dream” has been thrown around for decades. By definition, it is the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved. These aspirations and goals are subjective depending on the individual.

For Airman 1st Class Kouassi Kouman, 87th Force Support Squadron food service apprentice, his version of the American dream was to join the U.S. Air Force. Born and raised in Bondoukou, Africa, Kouman grew up learning about the U.S. through military movies and history classes.

“Everyone in my generation sees America as the country who protects everyone in the world,” said Kouman. “We respect them and all have ‘the American dream.’ America helps show democracy around the world and it was an example to us of who we wanted to be. It became my dream to join the U.S. Air Force.”

He began his journey to ‘freedom’ with college. While studying geography and marketing in 2011, the Ivory Coast which Kouman called home, reignited a civil war which put an abrupt halt to his life.

“No one could go outside,” said Kouman. “In the morning when I would go out [in search] for food, I would see hundreds of people laying down. Dead.”

Kouman sent his wife, Cristelle, and young son to Ghana, Africa in search for refuge from the war. They were separated for months while Kouman managed his own grocery store for money to support his family.

“I was living in the capital city at the time,” said Christelle. “I was in the first trimester of my [second] pregnancy and I started to see [suspicious] people in the neighborhood. I feared for my life and did not want to get raped. We thought it wasn’t going to last more than a month but the situation got worse.”

The rebels would patrol the city streets, killing whoever stood against them. When Kouman would drive around for food, he would have to constantly prove to rebels he had no weapons by sticking both arms outside of the vehicle and convince them they were only out to look for food. Each time he did this was a risk he was taking with his life.

“At the time, I lived at a friend’s house,” said Kouman. “Every night the rebels would come into the complex and steal cars, steal things from houses. We had to just sit there and watch. If you said something you were killed. I saw someone get shot right in front of me. He wasn’t doing what they wanted and they shot him. They then pointed the gun at me but I pleaded that I was only out to get food not to fight. They let me go but I began bringing them cigarettes when I could after that.”

During the war known as the Second Ivorian Civil War, the city lived in terror as the rebels over ran everything. Within a month, more than 2,100 people were killed during the politically influenced war.

“It was very, very scary,” said Kouman. “Every night you would hear ‘boom..boom…boom.’”

Before the war began, Kouman had already began the process to obtain his green card and pursue his dream of joining the Air Force. Their applications were approved and Kouman with his pregnant wife and 18-month-old son packed up their lives and flew to America.

“I was astonished to see trees everywhere, people living literally in the bushes,” said Christelle. “Columbia, [North Carolina] wasn’t a big city [but it was beautiful], I used to think our capital was beautiful.”

After arriving to North Carolina in 2014 with their brand new citizenship, the then 30-year-old wasted no time and immediately applied to join the Air Force. The recruiter gave him the devastating news that he did not qualify due to his age –

The limit was 27.

Disappointed, Kouman got a job elsewhere and went about his life. In 2017, his wife decided she wanted to join the U.S. Navy.

“She went through boot camp but got sent back for health issues so I said ‘Okay let me try again to bring alive this dream,’” said Kouman. “I went to a Navy recruiter who told me that the [age limit] for the Air Force has now changed to 39. He directed me to and I got in.”

Now a Services Airman stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, Kouman and his family plan on staying in the military and keeping their residency in the U.S. He reached his life-long dream of joining the U.S. Air Force through unusual and dangerous obstacles. Because of this, it has changed Kouman’s outlook on life.

“After what I experienced in Africa, I never complain,” said Kouman. “Things are easy now, I take things as ‘it is what it is.’ I’ve had guns pointed at me with rebels yelling ‘shoot him, shoot him!’ I could have died, that’s why now, I don’t care anymore. If it’s my time to die then I can face it. Today, I am here.”