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Even after 10 years, it is difficult for Felicia M. Cruz to speak about her war experiences as a Marine in Iraq.

She participated in dozens of supply convoys and became no stranger to enemy fire, often traveling through long stretches of desert to bring fuel, food and ammunition to fellow Marines on the front lines.

“It was surreal when we were under fire, but your instincts and training kicked in. We’d take cover and aim at the enemy,” says Cruz, who witnessed her share of carnage from roadside bombs.

One of the most frightening experiences occurred in the middle of the night when she was in a convoy that separated from the main column.

“There are 135 vehicles in a convoy, and we had stopped, and the truck in front of us did not move when the rest of the convoy started up again,” Cruz recalls. “We did not have our lights on. We did not want to risk being spotted by the enemy, but 22 trucks were left behind. We couldn’t get out of the vehicles because there were trip wires attached to roadside bombs.”

Cruz remembers that “we didn’t have radio contact. The rest of the convoy had gone so far ahead, and we were out of range. I continued, though, to try and make contact by radio. An hour or two later, when radio checks were done among the trucks that had gone ahead, they realized we were separated.

“The point guard drove back for us, while the rest continued to their destination. We were glad to move because we worried about getting ambushed. Fortunately, nothing happened.”

Many times, Cruz wondered whether she would ever return home to the beautiful baby daughter she had left behind. Aaliyah was 16 months old when Cruz was deployed.

“I had a journal and I wrote to her in it. I would tell her my feelings and what was going on,” Cruz says. “I wrote in it every free minute I had and let her know I loved her and missed her, thinking she would read it when she got older. I’d left my daughter in the hands of my Aunt Cande in New York City, who I knew would take care of her. That made me feel better.”

Toward the end of Cruz’s 2003 deployment, she says, two Marines in her unit were in a convoy accident. One died, and the other was permanently disabled.

“It was at night, and they had gotten separated from the main group of the convoy and were speeding to catch up and hit another vehicle head-on,” she says. “I was supposed to have been on that convoy that was headed to Kuwait and going back home, but I stayed behind to be one of the last of my unit to leave to make sure my other Marines were safe.”

Soon after Cruz returned home, she left the Marines to fulfill her dream of obtaining a college education, first completing an associate degree in substance abuse and mental health counseling at Erie Community College. Now she is in the home stretch of finishing work on a bachelor’s degree in social work at Buffalo State College.

Cruz also works part-time in human services for the Greater Buffalo Chapter of the American Red Cross. In addition to that, she serves on various boards in the Hispanic-American community, including the Augustin “Pucho” Olivencia Community Center on Swan Street.

Her mother could not be more proud of her. “My daughter ‘leaves no man behind,’ a Marine motto. I have seen her making sandwiches and handing them out under the bridges to the homeless. I even know one incident where she took off her coat and gave it to a woman on the street that was coatless. She is my hero,” Marguerite Cruz said of her daughter.

And what about the war journal that Felicia Cruz kept in Iraq for her daughter, who is now 11?

“Aaliyah keeps it with her personal possessions,” the former Marine says, “and she reads it over and over.”

Felicia M. Cruz, 33

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: South Buffalo

• Branch: Marine Corps

• Rank: Sergeant

• War zone: Iraq

• Years of service: 1998 – 2004

• Most prominent honors:

Presidential Unit Citation,

Overseas Service Ribbon

• Specialties:

Communications,

radio operator