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America's 'Kenya cowboy' in Iraq

By Alphonso Van Marsh

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SAMARRA, Iraq (CNN) -- In the middle of a former granary-turned-U.S. military base in Samarra, Iraq, a U.S. soldier gently folds a Kenyan flag and puts it away. For Pfc. Michael Giraudo, a white 20-year-old with a slim build and quiet demeanor, the flag isn't a souvenir -- it is a symbol of home.

"People get a kick out of me. I'm from Kenya and I'm white," he says with a laugh. "It's not what people expect when they think of Kenya."

Giraudo, the son of a British nurse and American safari guide, was born and raised in the East African nation. Giraudo split his childhood between Nairobi's upscale, expatriate-heavy Karen district and the bush.

He says he was brought up running in open spaces with animals at his side and listening to Masai tribesmen tell stories about lion hunts.

"I guess you could call me a Kenya cowboy," Swahili-speaking Giraudo says of the moniker for rebellious, white, male youth who spend much of their time with black African Kenyans.

"While most of my friends would be studying and that sort of thing, I'd be out riding my dirt bike, or drinking beer with my buddies," he says, with an accent he describes as a mixture of British and African.

His father, Peter Giraudo, says his son was granted U.S. citizenship in 1991 even though he only visited America once as a child. "Michael was brought up to be proud of his heritage as best we could," he said in an e-mail.

That pride would be emboldened by two pivotal moments: the terror attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; and the September 11th attacks on the United States.

"When I saw the planes hit the twin towers -- even though I had really never been in the United States, it really made me mad," Michael Giraudo says. "I decided something had to be done, somebody had to do something."

That something was to fulfill his long-standing fascination with the U.S. military by heading over to the new U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to enlist in the U.S. Army. But getting to boot camp wasn't easy, given post-9/11 tensions and security issues in the United States.

"The U.S. military was discouraging. We could not, despite endless efforts, get them to send us the information packs because we had an address in Kenya," Peter Giraudo said via e-mail. "Even going to the military attaches here in Kenya did not help. They just could not easily handle recruiting applications from overseas."

The younger Giraudo was so determined he moved to California, enlisted and finished Army basic training in 2002. Like many soldiers, he didn't escape boot camp without a nickname: "Kenya" was the obvious choice.

"One of the drill sergeants heard it and that was it, I was Kenya from then on," he says. "It was hard at first, getting to know the [American] culture and how to interact with people."

In Samarra, the Kenya cowboy's nickname is so often used that some of his fellow soldiers in the 4th Infantry Division forget his real name.

"They called him Kenya before I got to know him. I thought that was his last name," says his squad leader Darren Vogt, an army specialist. "We're always wearing flak vests, so I never saw his name tag."

The bullet-resistant vests are a must in Samarra, a flashpoint in the so-called Sunni Triangle, where insurgents have consistently launched attacks on coalition forces. Many residents there support Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni Muslim -- a minority sect in the Shiite-majority nation.

"We've had some times where it has been pretty hairy. I've had an Iraqi 120 mm mortar round land about 15 feet from me and it didn't detonate. I've had an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) come through my window. Fortunately, no one was hurt." Giraudo says.

But the white African-American says he wants to be here: "I hoped for it. I wanted to get a chance to do my job and experience what really goes on when people go to war."

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