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Mideast edition, Sunday, April 29, 2007

CAP DRAA TRAINING AREA, Morocco — Under cover of darkness, Alfredo Guerra and two other men carried a 6-foot rubber raft down a rocky ledge and dropped it into the Caribbean Sea.

They loaded it with canned meat, crackers and 27 liters of water. Once in the water, they raised a mast, caught a breeze with their sail and bobbed out to sea, using a paddle to steer.

Searchlights swept over the craft as it silently sailed into the Cuban night, destination Florida, about 90 miles away. It was a trip that would also lead to a career in the U.S. Navy, though Guerra did not know it at the time.

It was Feb. 7, 1994. The men — Guerra, who was 20 at the time, his brother-in-law Roberto Diaz, and some guy named Michael — figured they had enough food and water for two weeks.

“My brother-in-law and I were involved in human rights organizations,” Guerra said. “I found out the governor was going to give me 20 years in prison. By that time I had already been in jail five times.”

Guerra, then of Bejusal, Cuba, now of Miami, had been caught circulating newspaper clippings critical of the government, among other subversive activities.

“I didn’t believe I was doing wrong,” he said. “I believed I had the right to express my feelings.”

Facing the long prison sentence, Guerra decided to flee his homeland. He paid 20,000 Cuban pesos (about $230 at the time) for an inflatable, Russian-made raft, and built a sail and mast, which he would fasten to the raft’s keel. He hid parts of the raft around his neighborhood for fear that his house might be searched.

As they sailed toward the dark horizon that night, Guerra and his mates counted 10 times that the searchlights swept over them. Using the element of surprise, they had purposely embarked from a rocky location near one of the Cuban guard posts.

“They didn’t expect anybody would leave from that place,” Guerra said.

He was scared. Guerra didn’t know anything about sailing except for what he’d read in books. He could swim OK, but would sink when he tried to tread water.

On the second day, the men sailed over waves 10- and 15-feet high. “We took motion-sickness pills before we left,” Guerra recalled. “None of us puked.”

The three made good time. On the third day, at about 10 a.m., a U.S. Coast Guard ship spotted the small craft and motored out to meet it. They were only about 1 mile from the Florida Keys.

The men had trench feet from being soaked by the salty water, but that was the least of their worries.

“All of us were crying,” Guerra said. “I was nervous, shaking. One of the Coast Guardsmen picked me up from the raft. He spoke in rough Spanish. I could understand what he was saying.

“He told me to calm down. He said, ‘We’re going to help you. Welcome to the United States. You’re a free man now.’

“Those are words I’ll never forget.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Alfredo Guerra joined the Navy one year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He would have joined sooner because his mind was made up, but he was too busy living the American dream. He and his wife, Hildelisa, also of Cuban descent, had bought a house, and he was working in Miami as an emergency medical technician.

On March 2, 2006, the day after he returned from a deployment to Iraq, his wife gave birth to their daughter, Melanie Isabella.

This month, Guerra, now 33 and stationed at Portsmouth Medical Hospital, Va., is part of the medical team supporting Africa Lion 07, a two-week U.S.-Moroccan military exercise in southern Morocco.

Now when asked to speak his mind, Guerra can and does. America, he said, needs to rediscover the merits of hard work and family values. His brother-in-law, Diaz, owns a trucking company in Texas. Michael — Guerra can’t remember his last name — drives one of the trucks.

“I know the result of having a welfare state; it’s in Cuba,” he said. “Nothing good comes from a welfare state.”

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