By CARLOS LAZO
LOS ANGELES TIMES
I joined the Army National Guard and proudly served as a combat medic in Iraq, in gratitude to a nation that has given me the opportunity to live my dreams since I arrived here from Cuba on a fragile wooden raft. I also joined to teach my teenage sons in Cuba a lesson about freedom and responsibility, and about how important it is to give back. But since the rules for travel to Cuba were abruptly tightened last summer, my boys are learning a different lesson: that even in America, political calculation can trump human rights, and that a small minority of extremist voices can be enough to keep a family apart.
I risked my life to come to the United States in 1992 for the same reasons immigrants have always come to these shores: to taste freedom, to take advantage of the economic opportunities and to build a better life for the people I cared about.
I have been fortunate; I have been able to realize my dreams. After establishing myself in Miami, I returned to school, earning my counseling certification. I moved to Seattle, where I had a great job counseling people with developmental disabilities.
But when an earthquake struck Washington state and I saw how people pulled together to help one another, I realized that I wanted to help my state and the nation that had given so much to me. At 35, I joined the National Guard.
During this time, I kept in contact with my children in Cuba -- visiting, sending money to support them and following their growth and adventures as best I could. My last trip to Cuba in 2003 was three days of love and roughhousing. We hardly slept, we never stopped smiling. I couldn't wait to see them again.
In November 2003, my Guard unit was called up and I was deployed to Camp Anaconda, north of Baghdad. During my first R & amp; R break, in June 2004, I flew to Miami, where I boarded a charter flight to Cuba. There was a special urgency about this visit. I was serving in a war zone, where U.S. troops were being attacked and killed almost every day.
But I was not allowed to fly to Havana. The Bush administration recently had announced its intention to severely limit travel to Cuba, even for family visits, to once every three years. Even though I arrived in Miami two days before the travel restrictions went into effect on June 30, the charter company said it was not allowed to take any more passengers to Cuba.
The calculations behind the travel restriction were simple. While U.S. troops were trying to bring democracy to Iraq, President Bush was trying to ensure his re-election by catering to a small but politically powerful group of anti-Castro extremists who demand complete isolation of Cuba as the price of their support. Bush met their demands, but it is average Cubans, and families like mine, that have paid the price.
Last November, I provided support for the Marine assault on Fallujah, rushing torn and bloody young men to field hospitals and starting those who had given their lives on their last, long voyage home. The carnage was horrifying, like nothing I could ever have imagined. But the thought of seeing my sons again, the knowledge that my actions would help others see their loved ones again, kept me going.
But I have not seen them since April 2003, and unless this ludicrous law is changed, I will not see them again until 2006.
I was proud to serve. My children would be proud, too, to hear what Americans will do for the cause of freedom. But the administration that trusted me in battle in Iraq does not trust me to visit my children in Cuba.
I am in Washington this week to exercise my rights -- as a veteran and as a proud Cuban American -- to ask that my right to travel to Cuba, and the rights of all Americans to travel to the island, be restored. That would send a powerful message of liberty and freedom to my sons and to people everywhere.
X Lazo is a sergeant in the National Guard