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Pfc. Omar Mejia Loera.
Pfc. Omar Mejia Loera. (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

KIRKUK, Iraq — Thousands of miles from his California home, Pfc. Omar Mejia Loera soldiers on in the desert heat in hopes of fueling his future as an artist.

In February 2002, Mejia Loera, 20, pledged three years of his life to the Army to get money for art school. Today he’s an airborne supply clerk with the Italy-based 501st Forward Support Company who has seen more of the globe than he ever imagined in his pre-Sept. 11 high-school days.

“You can’t be an artist if you haven’t seen the world,” Mejia Loera said. “The Army’s a great way to see the world.”

Mejia Loera’s unit landed in northern Iraq with the 173rd Airborne Brigade shortly after the war started, and quickly made its way to the airfield at Kirkuk. He wound up in a little building along the flight line, between the Army chow tent and the main hangar.

On the large blank wall behind his desk, he took an artist’s pencil and began drawing a mural of some of the men and women in his unit: an officer with his hand in the air beginning to speak, a bare-headed soldier casually holding his rifle behind his neck, a sergeant squinting intensely at the horizon.

The realistic mural caused plenty of excitement in the routine of the 501st FSC. Over the months, Mejia Loera has added more faces from his company — impressing them with his larger-than-life portraits, and causing others to wonder why they’ve been left out. He said he simply chooses people whose faces interest him the most.

As a boy living in Mexico, Mejia Loera learned about art from his father, Oscar, a carpenter who also draws and carves wood.

“I always wanted to make my parents proud of me,” Mejia Loera said. “There is nothing like expressing myself through art. I started noticing my teachers and friends complimenting my drawings, and when I was about 9, I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist.”

When he was 11, his family moved to California through the efforts of his mother, Sylvia, who was born in the United States and holds U.S. citizenship.

Omar and his sister, Liliana, who is three years older, grew up fast because both of their parents are deaf.

“Living in Mexico at that time and having deaf parents was tough, especially for two little kids,” he said. “Liliana and I became responsible at such a young age. We were my parents’ ears.”

While some look upon deafness as a disability, deaf people do not see it that way. Deaf people have their own language and culture. Nature helps them compensate for their hearing loss in other ways.

“I believe that deaf people hear through their eyes,” Mejia Loera said. “My mom knows exactly how each one of her kids is feeling. All she wants to do is be a good mother, and I think she did a lot more than that.”

He said his father has won “many diplomas and awards.” But the one thing Oscar’s deafness prevented him from doing was joining the military.

“A lot of times, I think his gene [for wanting to be] in the military transferred to me,” Mejia Loera said. “He is very smart, and I know for a fact that he would have been an outstanding soldier.”

As he finished high school in Dinuba, Calif. — a town of 12,000 residents southeast of Fresno — he decided the Army looked like a good way to fulfill both of his dreams. Anger over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks fired him up even more.

“I wanted to show my family and my country what I can do,” Mejia Loera said.

Because he likes heights, Mejia Loera chose Airborne School and landed in Italy with the 173rd. His family was proud and shocked to learn that he would be going to war.

“ [My sister] told me that my dad spends a lot of time watching the news to see any updates on the war in Iraq, and my mom cries at night,” he said.

“When I get a chance to use the phone, I call home. There is nothing more beautiful than hearing my parents’ voice on the speaker telling me that they love me.”

As a soldier and an artist, Mejia Loera must slip back and forth between two worlds that don’t always fit together well.

“When I told my art teacher I was joining the Army, he flipped out,” Mejia Loera recalled. “He told me that I was throwing my future away.”

He doesn’t agree. He plans to leave the Army in 2005 and go straight to art school in Long Beach, Calif. He’s interested in both expressionism and realism, and he hopes to land a job with a large graphics company such as Pixar or DreamWorks, making cartoon movies.

Mejia Loera has finished six months of a deployment that likely will stretch to one year — far longer than he or anyone else in his unit expected when they landed last spring. He will not forget or regret his time in Iraq.

“Being in the military has opened my eyes in many different ways, the way I see the world and the different cultures that are in it,” he said. “If I get a chance to work in one of the big graphic design companies, I will draw stories about what I’ve seen.”

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