Yonas Hagos: ‘I Wanted to Pay Back America for What It’s Given Me’
Hagos spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp in Sudan, coming to the United States when he was 10. He joined the army after 9/11 because, he says, he felt this country had given him so much. Hagos was seriously injured by a rocket–propelled grenade and was later awarded a Purple Heart. Now recovered, he’s become a successful entrepreneur. He is wearing the backpack he had on when he was wounded. [Photo: Peter Yang]
Home: Carol Stream, Ill.
Branch: U.S. Army
Can you start by telling me when and where you served?
I served about a year in Germany. Then, I did almost a year in Iraq. I was in Baghdad from 2003 to 2004. I got wounded, went back to Germany, did some therapy and came back home.
How did you and your family come to the United States?
My parents fled a war-torn country, Ethiopia, both my mom and dad, and they both have an amazing story. My mom has told me what they endured. They fled to Sudan in the ’70s, they settled in a refugee camp and that’s when they had me and my brothers and sisters. I lived in Sudan until I was about 9. In 1992, my father brought us here. He actually came here ahead of us.
We moved into the suburbs of Chicago. I remember landing at O’Hare airport when I saw my dad, ran up to him, hugged him. And, he said, “The car is in the garage. I’ll go get it.” He came and picked us up. Now, coming from a poor country, I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw the car I’m like, “Wow, my dad got a four-door car.” Obviously, it was a used car. [LAUGHS] It was a little beater, but I didn’t know that.
We pull up to the apartment building. I’m just fascinated. You’re seeing this nice, fancy-looking building — which wasn’t — but at the time to me it was. We walked into the two-bedroom apartment. There’s six of us including my mom and dad. And he said, “This is where you guys are going to sleep.” There’s two beds, single beds. I was excited. Back in Sudan, there was four of us sleeping on one bed with no mattress, just on the springs, but sometimes, you’re sleeping on the floor. And, to me, this is wild.
Hagos in Baghdad in 2004
When did you first think about joining the military?
Well, it was probably late senior year I was thinking about it. I was the oldest—two sisters, two brothers that looked up to me. And, we lived in Section Eight housing, which we were surrounded around gang bangers, drug dealers. After my parents split up, my mom couldn’t do much to get us out of there. She barely made ends meet with her job. So, I knew moving ahead I needed to do something. And, I didn’t want to get drawn into selling drugs or gang-banging. And, at the same time, I wanted to do something with my life. More importantly, I wanted to pay back America for what it’s given me. So, after high school, I was going to a community college and I couldn’t really afford it. And 9/11 happened. It really woke me up. I said, “Do I sit back and pretty much mooch of the country, or do I go and do something about it?” So, I enlisted December 2002.
What do you remember most about the day you shipped out?
I remember the exact date I went to basic training and how it led to me being in Iraq. It was March 18th, 2003. I left from the airport to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. We arrived at the airport. There was about 20 of us. We got picked up, got to base. That’s when you knew it was real. We were actually hauled into a conference room. And, that night, the President announced we were going to war with Iraq. I remember one of the sergeants clearly stating, quote from quote, “90 percent of you in this room will be in Iraq after training. Half of you will come back either wounded or in body bags.” And, there was some silence in the room.
I remember people whispering, “I didn’t join for this.” Obviously, I knew part of joining the military was when war is calling, you gotta go and serve. But, there were a lot of angry people. I remember shipping out, I think it was late September, early October, we flew from Germany to Kuwait. We were at Camp Wolf for about a week, Tent City, hot. I didn’t like it very much. Then, from Kuwait to Baghdad.
You were awarded a Purple Heart. Can you tell us about how you were wounded? Is it true you were pronounced dead on the scene?
Yeah. I’m getting better with telling some of it, but some of it’s hard to talk about. But I got wounded April 10, 2004. It was Easter. Now, going back 10 days before April 10, we went through hell and back. I mean, there were times where we were ambushed anywhere from 10 to 24 hours at a time — where you’re just pinned in one position. You really couldn’t call help because your help was out there fighting a battle. You just gotta hold your own until they can get more troops to relieve you.
But April 10 came. That morning I got off of guard duty and we went to QRF, which is Quick Ready Force. That was our rotation. I remember going to sleep around 6:30 in the morning and waking up around 10 a.m. It was calm. They said, “Take your time. We’re going to take a Howitzer.” It’s like a tank, but it got a longer gun. It’s not armored well. Some armor in it, but you’re pretty much sitting in an aluminum can. We had the Howitzer and we had two Humvees. It was about 12 of us. I was on the Howitzer.
Things were quiet on the streets. Too quiet. My chief, Sgt. Diaz, says “Just keep focused. Keep your eyes opened.” We came into an intersection, two major streets. It was Omar Street and 20th Street. And we’ve had a lot of soldiers that lost their lives on those streets.
We started pivoting at the intersection. The Howitzer pivots like a tank. And, my attention got drawn to two guys on the rooftop with the AK-47s. They started shooting. My chief screamed, “RPG!” The Howitzer pivoted. But, by the time they launched an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), I really couldn’t do much. There’s two of us in the tight space. I did my best, grabbed my M-16 and tried putting myself in the fetal position. The guy had such an accurate shot — it’s the thing that saved my life, actually, there is a God up there—he had such an accurate shot that the RPG hit the Howitzer and exploded on me instead of going right through me. It was inches.
Now, I’ve seen people that were hit with an RPG. They usually shoot it at tanks. They shoot it at choppers, any big vehicles. But, they also shoot it at human beings like us. When I was hit, my M-16 came off of my hand, my Kevlar fell off of my head and I was dangling 10 feet above the ground. The guy on the side of the Howitzer grabbed my boots, grabbed my leg. They pulled me inside. They said my body was motionless and I fell back. I was out for about 45 seconds to a minute, no pulse. I was pronounced dead. They said “We got one KIA” (Killed in action.)
While I was down there, they said I woke up. And, I remember getting up. I looked around me and I seen the lieutenant, my buddy Green and my buddy Florian. I looked to my left and I saw chunks of my shoulder pretty much missing. And I remember coughing up blood. I could barely talk. And then the pain kicked in. I was screaming. Now, during this time, I did not know we were ambushed by a couple hundred insurgents. And, when they rushed me to our battalion, to the Uday and Qusay palace, they came under fire. They throw me in a Humvee and they ripped all my clothes.
What saved my life was that the medic, the female medic—I’ll never forget it—her reaction to get the IV going and trying to stop the bleeding and calming me down, helping me. I got air-vacced to the hospital in the Green Zone, which came under heavy attack. They shot an RPG through my window, but the generator in front of the window stopped it. After that, I had surgery. The next morning they woke me up. I had another surgery. They flew me into Balad, which was like a tent city. There was an air base there.
Two hours after I arrived, they started mortaring us. And I remember a major, she was a doctor. She came in, “Hey soldier.” And there was a couple of other wounded soldiers, “If your tent gets hit, we’ll come and move you guys.” The night before, we lost airmen. And I’m thinking, “I could barely move. Some of these other guys can barely move.” And if the tent gets hit, we’re all dead. And I remember her, she had her vest and a Kevlar and her weapon. And I’m like, “Man, why would they bring me here if I left hell to another hell?” We got mortared for about six hours. But they put me in a plane. After the shelling stopped, we flew into Kuwait, picked up more wounded people, and got into Germany.
They told me I’d have only 50 percent mobility. But I’m now up to about 95 percent mobility. It wasn’t easy, but it’s been a long road.
These are very vivid memories. You mentioned earlier that you had suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. What is it like now when you think about that day?
It’s not as bad as it used to be, but it’s there. I don’t really tell my wife. I mean, I have nightmares. I don’t talk too much about it. I keep myself busy, and that has helped me out tremendously. I’m going to have to take it on a day-to-day basis, but I do have nightmares. I was on medication. I threw all of them out. I just find that by working out, staying in shape, staying focused and on the task.
This Veteran’s Day, are there specific people you’d like to pay tribute to?
Even though I’m out, I still know several people still in. My chief is still in. Most of my section is still in. And, some of the people that have made it off the first tour, which was the worst, and went back, did not come back home. I mean, Veterans Day, you know, I do my best to celebrate it. But I try to not think of the people, not for a bad reason, but it’s just—yeah, I’m here, but they’re still out there fighting. And, some of the people who didn’t make it home, who came back in a box, I try to not think about them. It just makes it worse for me.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Don’t take your freedoms for granted. That’s all I could say.