The Miami Herald
Apr. 28, 2003

Marines aided Cuban; now he helps in Iraq


  NAJAF, Iraq -For U.S. Army Sgt. Rodolfo Castillo, handing out packaged meals to hungry Iraqis means he had come full circle.

  He was saved nine years ago by U.S. soldiers handing him packaged meals when he was starving.

  Now it was his turn.

  In August 1994, Castillo and two friends left Havana on a six-by-four-foot raft crafted from plywood and inner tubes stuffed with worm-shaped Styrofoam.
  Each man had a different reason for risking his life at sea.

  One friend was facing prison after police found him with a gun. Another had met an American woman in Havana and promised to find her.

  Castillo left because he was ``young and ambitious and it didn't matter.''

  He had been a drill sergeant in the Cuban army and a high-school, physical-education teacher in Havana. His life was OK, but he saw how hard his parents
  and grandparents had worked for decades with little to show for it.


  Castillo's father told him that escaping by raft was too dangerous. His mother wept but said nothing. His 10-year-old son promised to join him in Miami in a

  On a hot, cloudy night, the three friends paddled out against the current. They had 15 gallons of water, a case of sweet condensed milk and a compass.

  The next day, after paddling all night, they could still see Havana landmarks Morro Castle and the Riviera Hotel. They drank milk, sipped water and took
  turns paddling until after dark. ''But no matter what we did, we couldn't lose our country,'' Castillo said.

  Soon, a tropical storm battered the raft so much that they tied themselves to its side. Castillo's friend Luis Gustavo Redondo was so disoriented by thirst
  that he tried to throw himself overboard, but he was held down by the ropes.

  The next day, when the storm stopped, they were still afloat but without their food or compass. They floated for two more days, passing two broken rafts.

  An NBC television news helicopter passed overhead, but it would be another day before the U.S. Coast Guard picked them up and took them to the U.S.
  Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.


  The men spent more than 13 months at Guantánamo, living in a large, crowded tent with dirt floors, lit only by candles. There, Castillo's fondness for the
  U.S. military grew.

  He sported a blue-mesh Navy baseball cap, a gift from his brother, who had visited a U.S. military base in Germany.

  The friends dined on prepackaged military meals. They chatted with Marines, carving wood statues and giving them to the soldiers in exchange for rolls of

  Castillo peppered the Marines -- many of whom spoke Spanish -- with questions about their jobs. Sometimes, he would wake up early and exercise with
  the American soldiers.

  ''He always talked about becoming a soldier, even at Guantánamo,'' Redondo said. ``He even ran a marathon with the soldiers at the base.''

  So it surprised no one when Castillo joined the Army four years ago.

  Now he is in Iraq.

  Castillo's friends and family talk of his deployment with casual pride, as if it had long ago been decided amid the mosquitoes and rain of Guantánamo. His
  wife, Yolanda, stayed awake until 1 a.m. to watch her husband appear on CNN's Spanish-language broadcast earlier this month.

  ''When I saw him, I started screaming and jumping up and down,'' she said from her home in Fayetteville, N.C., where their son, Michael, 18, and Castillo's
  parents also live. ``I took a picture of the screen, and it came out perfectly.''

  Castillo, 38, recently recalled his rescue by the Coast Guard in 1994.

  ''We knew others had drowned, and we felt we had been spared for a reason,'' he said.

  When Castillo handed out packaged meals to hungry children at Najaf Children's Hospital earlier this month, he knew what that reason was.


  He handed a box of packaged meals to a pediatrician, who at first looked tentative and afraid. Castillo smiled. The doctor smiled back.

  On this day, Castillo remembered the smiling faces of the Marines who fed him when he was starving. It was his own face.

  ''I know he had to have been thinking about those days in Guantánamo,'' said Luis Vazquez, 53, who also came with Castillo on the raft. ``He was always
  so proud of being an American.''

  Herald staff writer Meg Laughlin reported from Najaf, Iraq, and staff writer David Ovalle from Miami.