In honor of Memorial Day, The Sun is republishing on its website profiles of the Cornellians who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire series can be accessed here .
This article was originally published on May 3, 2011.
U.S. Air Force Special Agent Phil Caruso ’08, who deployed to Afghanistan in February, said he feels lucky to be alive after he saw an Afghan child tug at wires buried beneath the ground.
“We were out on patrol one day, and we found a rocket out in the field. There were wires sticking out of the dirt nearby,” he said. “Before I could yell at the kid through the linguist, the kid walks five feet away and pulls out more wires.”
Nothing happened. He never found out if the wires were connected to the rocket or an explosive device. However, Caruso said he often wonders what could have happened “if [it] had been an IED or a bomb.”
Following his graduation in 2008, Caruso received more than 13 months of what he described as “intense training” before shipping off to Afghanistan to do counterintelligence and counter threat operations for the Air Force.
A material science and engineering major at Cornell, Caruso said that the problem solving skills he gained through the rigorous academics of the Engineering College have served him well.
“In terms of logic and problem solving, the challenge that Cornell presents in its engineering program teaches you skills and capabilities that stay with you after graduation,” he said. “You can use those problem solving skills in the real world no matter what field you go into.”
While on campus, Caruso was a member of the Air Force Reserved Officer Training Corps and a member of the Chi Phi fraternity.
Caruso began his tour of duty in February and said he has applied skills he gained at Cornell alongside his military training while based in Kandahar, Afghanistan — a city located in the country’s southern region.
Since his arrival in February, Caruso said his job has technically involved “hunting down the Taliban terrorist insurgents in a certain geographic area,” but noted that there are certain parts of his job that few people are aware of.
“As a part of my job, I get to spend time off base doing humanitarian missions into the villages,” he said.
On these missions, Caruso said that he and his colleagues distribute over 500 square feet of supplies including baby clothes, toys, hygiene products, pens and even Croc sandals.
“[Crocs] cost 25 or 30 bucks at home, and we were just handing them out to the Afghans. They’re the nicest thing they have in terms of footwear,” Caruso said.
What he said has surprised him most about these humanitarian excursions, however, has been the sheer number of Afghan youth.
“It’s like a giant mob of children. They flood and attack,” he said.
The poverty these children live in has forced them to become aggressive and thrifty, Caruso said.
“All the people here are so used to maximizing the benefits they get. They learn how to hoard from a very young age. They’re entrepreneurs,” he said.
According to Caruso, these encounters with children are a part of the reality of serving in the military.
“The males who are old enough will work the fields all day, and women are traditionally not allowed to leave the house or the compound,” Caruso explained. “Kids just kind of run rampant … They are the ones we have the most exposure to, right off the bat.”
Thinking of the Afghan youth, he says he will remember the experience with the Afghan child pulling on the wires buried beneath the ground.
When Caruso returns home in August, he plans to bring a bundle of wires from that day home with him “as a souvenir,” he said.