Ceasar Perez remembers feeling sniper bullets whizzing by him when he was stationed in Somalia.
“I was 19 and a Marine and I felt invincible,” said Perez, now 42 and about to have a child with his wife, Diana.
Because nobody from his unit was killed in Somalia, where he was sent in 1992, the sergeant said he doesn’t put himself on the same level with veterans sent to Korea or Iraq or Afghanistan.
But the bullets were real when he was a forward observer directing helicopters and helping distribute needed food in Somalia while rival warlords were trying to steal it.
It’s a dangerous time most of us don’t know much about. Maybe you’ve read or seen “Black Hawk Down”; otherwise, it hasn’t permeated pop culture.
Perez spent nine years in the Marines, and he’s still active in veteran affairs, including serving as director of Toys for Tots since 2003.
He also helps coach the Urbana High School wrestling team.
Perez’s life has been a success, including graduating from the University of Illinois and from the MBA program at Notre Dame. He runs a successful DJ company, Crystal Entertainment.
And people still recognize him as Mr. Blue Hands Man from when he cheered on the 2004-05 Illinois men’s basketball team with Hulk hands, a shaved head and a chest painted orange.
Perez, the son of a Marine, grew up in the south Chicago suburbs and on Okinawa in Japan. He ran the mile in track and had the Marines in mind as a career in 1990.
“I went to high school graduation on Friday, and I left for the Marine Corps on Monday,” he said.
His introduction to Somalia was just as abrupt.
“We landed at 4 a.m. and the heat punched me in the face,” he said.
There was movement in the shadows. When the light came up, he could see Somalis on buildings, some with AK-47s.
“But some of the shadows turned out to be mothers with kids,” he added.
Driving on a patrol to protect a food drop, he experienced being shot at for the first time. He found the Somalis were using old Chinese and Russian weapons, some dating back to World War II.
He was once crouching behind a pile of dirt where he could see the weeds that were growing move as bullets landed.
Living conditions were tough in the heat as well, with he and his fellow Marines forced to drink boxes of water he said came from Mount Kilimanjaro. Then he saw Air Force troops having soda in air-conditioned tents.
“That’s when I thought ‘I should have joined the Air Force,'” he joked.
Perez eventually left the Marines because he never attained his goal of being a drill instructor, a desire instilled by watching Marine veteran and actor R. Lee Ermey bark at troops in 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket.”
Between Marine stints, he started at the UI, first coming here in 1996. Eventually, he finished his degree, then went on to earn his executive MBA. He was the first person in his family to go to college.
Even with all his current success, he said, he’ll never forget Somalia.
“You could smell death there,” he said.