BAGHDAD, Iraq, February 2006 - Eastern Baghdad is a long way from home for the soldiers of the 506th Regimental Combat Team, both figuratively and literally. Perhaps no soldier has come farther than SPC Ramces Pastrana, a combat medic with the 4th Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment.
This 31 year old began his medical career in the Villa Clara province of Cuba, less than 100 miles from the United States, but worlds away in terms of freedom and liberty.
"You've never been to a communist country right?" said Pastrana, with a laugh. "It's different -- there is no freedom of speech, I mean, it is like a 180-degree turn around. It's like, there are people against the war in the states. You can go to jail in Cuba, without a trial, for five years. There are some rights you do have, but the one you don't have at all is no future."
The decision to come to the US was not difficult for Pastrana to make.
"Well, it was back in 2001, after what happened at the twin towers," Pastrana said. "I was planning to go to Mexico as a tourist and, I just crossed, well, I came through the border from Mexico, and here I am."
The medical profession is not new to Pastrana. "I started medicine in Cuba," Pastrana said. "All of my family is related to the medical field. My mother is a professor in a medical university, and my father was an animal doctor."
Joining the Army was a decision Pastrana made not just from patriotism, but out of necessity.
"When I came to the states I had nobody," Pastrana said. "[I'm not] going to lie to you. The United States is a great country, but if you have nothing?" Pastrana said. "I decided I wanted something else. I wanted more opportunities. I had to wait for my green card for a year and a half. I had decided to join a year after I got here, and now I've been two years in the Army."
The transition has not been without some hardship.
"At the beginning it was hard to change. It's hard to learn the language," Pastrana said. "But I was ready to go anywhere. Basic training was really tough. What really hit me was the language; when you [have] a drill sergeant screaming in your face and you don't understand the language? I would just drop myself every time," Pastrana said. "I learned English in the Army."
Compared to what he's been through already, deploying to Iraq was easy.
"I have more in my room here than I would have in Cuba," Pastrana said. "It's not hard here. It's dangerous, but not hard."
His country of birth is never far from his thoughts.
"Eighty to 90 percent of the young population in Cuba wants to leave," Pastrana said. "Some times at night [in Miami], I [would] wake up and look out my window, and know right there is my home," Pastrana said.
He is confident that he will one day have the opportunity to return to Cuba.
"Cuba is going to change," Pastrana said. "That
is the optimal prayer, that Cuba will change one day."