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Cpl. Bajro Buzaljko, a 21-year-old ammunition technician from Utica, N.Y., with Task Force 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, examines ammunition in Karmah, Iraq, Nov. 24. Buzaljko left war-torn Bosnia as a child after watching his hometown fall victim to civil war. After the attacks of Sept. 11, he felt his home was yet again being attacked and decided to join the Marine Corps to defend his country

Photo by Lance Cpl. Achilles Tsantarlioti

From refugee to Marine

24 Nov 2008 | Lance Cpl. Achilles Tsantarliotis

Very few Marines have experienced war outside their duties working for Uncle Sam.

 Not Cpl. Bajro Buzaljko, a 21-year-old ammunition technician from Utica, N.Y., with Task Force 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1.

 As Bosnia erupted into civil war in the early ‘90’s, Buzaljko’s mixed Muslim-Catholic family’s life in Stolac was shattered. His father and uncle were placed in a Croatian concentration camp, leaving his mother alone to care for Buzaljko and his baby brother. 

 Buzaljko said he cherishes memories of Bosnia prior to the civil war. He described the country as having a scenic environment with lush fields and streams. Buzaljko said the erupting violence was completely contradictory of everything he remembered up to that point.

“Before the war it was a beautiful place,” he said. “We would always play and have so much fun. It is full of history and had gorgeous scenery. Then one day, tanks and [troops] came through our town.”

 Not until mortars began falling in the town did Buzaljko realize the danger his home, and everything he knew, was in.

 “My mother tried her best to keep me unaware of the violence surrounding us,” said Buzaljko. “One day we were getting ready to escape the city and we were covering the lights on our car to avoid detection. All of a sudden everyone started running; it was chaos. I heard this loud whistling, and all of a sudden, boom! My school was gone.”

 Buzaljko’s father and uncle spent a year doing hard labor and were afforded little food, until United Nations officials helped to free them.

 When his mother woke him up to tell him his father was home, Buzaljko did not recognize him.

 “I saw him standing in front of me and I didn’t know who he was,” Buzaljko said. “He had several shirts on and I could still see his bones through his clothing.”

 Only prisoners nearing death were released from the concentration camp, Buzaljko said. After his family reunited, U.N. officials told them they could go wherever they wished.

 They wanted to go to America.

 “We moved to New York, and my family started rebuilding our lives,” Buzaljko said. “In Bosnia, my family was established. We had good jobs, financial security, everything we needed. It was taken away.”

 Buzaljko grew up appreciating life in Utica, N.Y., quickly accepting it as his new home and thoroughly enjoying the land of opportunity.

 “It was great,” he said. “Even as we were leaving Bosnia, they told my mother she could stay, but the children could not since she came from a mixed marriage of Catholicism and Muslim. In America that never even came up.”

 Buzaljko’s interest in the military started in high school, where he was actively involved in the JROTC program.

 After the attacks of September 11, Buzaljko said he knew he would take his interest further, and joined the Marine Corps after graduating.

 “When we were attacked, it just made me feel like my home was being attacked again,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. That was the final factor in my decision to join. I wanted to go help fellow Americans.”

 During Buzaljko’s first deployment, to Afghanistan with 1st Bn., 3rd Marines, he discovered another aspect to his service.

 “When I got there, I realized not only was I doing my part for a country that took me in and helped my family, but I was helping other people in need, just like (the U.N.) helped me when my family was in trouble.”

 Buzaljko’s care and concern has carried over to his current deployment with his unit to Karmah, Iraq.

 It says a lot about someone to go back to a similar environment they left under such unfavorable circumstances, explained Cpl. Matthew Clay, a 23-year-old logistics operations center watch chief from Chicago, with 1st Bn., 3rd Marines.

 “Anyone who’s lived through a war and volunteered to go back has a lot of courage,” Clay said. “I have a lot of respect for him.”

 Despite the hardships Buzaljko’s family endured to leave their war-torn home, they remain supportive of their son and his service to their new country.

 “I am very proud; you can’t even imagine,” said the his mother,  Vesna Buzaljko. “He joined to say thank you to the [United States] for welcoming us with open arms. It was a tough time when we left, but America took us in and saved our family. Now he has a purpose to help others like we were helped when we needed it and we are so proud.”

1st Marine Division