TAMPA — For most people, joining the Air Force means a quick trip to the local recruiting office.
But for Geanny Hernandez Quiala, now with the 927th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill Air Force Base, enlisting was far more complicated.
A former star of the Cuban National Judo team, he first had to escape the island. Then he had to survive being in the open water in a small boat buffeted by a nascent Hurricane Katrina, being blown off course to Honduras and surviving a 15-day trek through the jungles of Central America, only to be captured by a Mexican drug cartel and tortured for five days.
When he finally arrived at the U.S. border, famished, weak and clad in the same clothes he had been wearing for weeks, he was able to reach his fiancée and hop a plane to her home in Miami.
A year later, he saw a military recruiting commercial on TV and found a new path.
"I wanted to join the military," Hernandez said in a recent phone interview. "I wanted to give back to this country."
For Hernandez, the journey to MacDill started with curiosity. And love.
Hernandez took an early interest in martial arts, first taking classes when he was 5 in a school in his hometown of Camaguey. By the time he was 7, Cuban government officials decided he was such a promising athlete they shipped him off to a special academy.
At first, things were great.
"I felt good," he said. "I was proud."
But by the time he turned 13, things began to get a little confusing for the judo star.
He would come in contact with athletes from other countries, where the government did not dictate how they lived. And he fell into a relationship with a fellow athlete, the daughter of a Cuban dissident.
The foreign athletes made him think about what he was missing. His girlfriend, who eventually moved with her family to Miami, made him begin to think about getting out.
By 2003, Hernandez was a star, winning a gold medal for jujitsu in the Central American Championship – Cuba's first in that sport.
His girlfriend, now his wife, came to visit from Miami.
"We were out and enjoying ourselves together," he said.
But for Hernandez, those good times were the beginning of his trouble with Cuban authorities.
"After the competition was over, the intelligence people asked if I had any relation with a foreign lady," said Hernandez. "I said no."
The agents backed off, but two years later, after Hernandez won another gold medal, they approached him again.
"They told me they had six agents," he said. "They told me, 'You were out with a foreign lady.' They told me 'we have pictures. You betrayed the country.'"
The agents, said Hernandez, told him to go home and get ready to face trial for betraying his country.
"I called one of my friends," he said. "I was desperate to escape."
The escape plan was scuttled by Hurricane Dennis, which blew through Cuba in July 2005. They rescheduled and in August headed down to Manzanillo, a small town on Cuba's southern coast, where they planned to set sail for Mexico.
It didn't take long for that plan to run into trouble as well.
Another storm was forming in the Gulf of Mexico, called Katrina. The escape party was in a 26-foot boat with no cabin. They were supposed to head southwest to Mexico, but the winds of the fast-brewing Katrina, which would go on to devastate the Gulf Coast, had other plans.
Instead of Mexico, Hernandez and the others wound up in Honduras, near the border with Nicaragua. The locals hosted them for four days until they were picked up by a Venezuelan cargo ship.
The ship took them to another part of Honduras, where the escapees were turned over to a fire department.
"It was the first time I could communicate with my wife," said Hernandez. "She didn't even know I escaped."
After being introduced to the culture of corruption pervasive in Honduras – someone offered to smuggle Hernandez out of the country for $4,000, money he did not have – the Cuban jujitsu champ took the advice of a local police officer he met.
"He told me that I would have to travel in a pair or alone, or we would die the first day in the jungle," Hernandez said, explaining that it would be easier to avoid detection that way.
Hernandez opted to travel on his own. He took a short bus trip to a town called Aguas Calientes and from there set out into the jungle, headed north.
For the next 15 days, Hernandez said, he walked through the jungle.
"I had no food or water," he said. "I ate little things from the trees. I ate flowers and leaves and drank water from the river."
Finally, after more than two weeks, Hernandez emerged from the jungle, in Mexico.
But his journey went from bad to worse.
"I was walking through the jungle and they captured me," he said of a Mexican drug cartel. "They hit me very hard, between my neck and my head, with the butt of a rifle."
The cartel members kept asking Hernandez if he was a police officer.
"I told them I was Cuban and escaped," he said. "But they didn't believe me.''
The cartel kept him prisoner for five days before letting him go. He walked another 25 miles through the jungle until he was picked up by federal troops. He contacted his wife, who tried to figure out how to get her husband home. After several more days of delays, Hernandez, weak, hungry and in the same filthy jeans and T-shirt he put on when he started his jungle trek, finally arrived at the border crossing into the United States on Sept. 10, 2005.
"They asked if I was Cuban," he said. "When I told them I was, the guard said, 'You are in the land of the free now.'"
Hernandez knows his tale sounds incredible. Though records of what happened to Hernandez after Cuba do not exist and officials from the State Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were unable to comment, Hernandez' commander at MacDill called him "a man of the highest integrity."
"There would be no reason for him to make anything up," said Air Force Maj. Brett Wedding, commander of the 927th Logistics Readiness Squadron. "There would be no benefit for him to make it up. I believe anything he says.''
In 2006, Hernandez visited an Air Force recruiting office in Miami.
"The recruiter said I would first have to learn English," said Hernandez, who was taking classes at Miami-Dade College. About six months later, Hernandez returned to the recruiting office and scored well enough on the aptitude test to be accepted into the military.
In 2008, he joined the Air Force. Three years later, he arrived at MacDill as an Air Force Reservist, where he is now a senior airman serving in the traffic management department. He said he has applied to the Florida Highway Patrol to be a trooper there.
His supervisors at the 927th laud him, calling him a "great example" for the rest of the unit and have provided FHP with a glowing referral. His story of how he left Cuba and ended up in the Air Force has been told in several military publications.
"He is a really sharp guy, a go-getter," said Hernandez' immediate supervisor, Master Sgt. Hugh Morrison. "He leads by example."
Wedding said he only learned about Hernandez' incredible journey from someone else in the unit.
"One of the greatest things about him is that he is so humble," said Wedding. "That's what makes him such a great addition."
©2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)
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