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Resilient and motivated, Purple Heart recipient finds home at ASU

man sitting on small airplane
October 29, 2014

It was around 10 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2012. All was quiet at Camp Bastion, the largest British overseas military base located in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Sgt. Jonathan Cudo, a 21-year-old powerline mechanic from Marine Attack Squadron 211 out of Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, was sitting in the shop in the hangar after the last maintenance item for the night. Suddenly, he heard gunfire.

Fifteen insurgents wearing U.S. Army uniforms had infiltrated the perimeter of the base that is home to coalition forces from the United Kingdom, the United States and Tonga. They had launched an attack with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and other weapons.

“There were only a few of us, and some did not have any combat experience whatsoever, so we did what we had been taught to do,” recalled Cudo, a Peoria native and graduate of Barry Goldwater High School. “We set up a perimeter and took them on with limited ammunition and no body armor.”

The insurgents destroyed six Harrier jump jets and damaged two more during the attack. Cudo’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher “Otis” Raible, who was on crew rest when the attack commenced, ran back to the camp to fight with his men with only a 9 mm pistol in hand.

“There was chaos, gunfire and flames everywhere,” said Cudo. “It was surreal, but at the same time, I remember it being very calm. We were strategizing and talking to each other to coordinate the attack. Everything taught to us during bootcamp and Marine Combat Training was put to use that night.”

Suddenly, an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade in the Marines’ direction. Cudo remembers Raible and him being hit in the head with shrapnel and losing consciousness soon after.

Raible and another sergeant named Bradley Atwell didn’t survive the attack. Cudo was in the hospital for a week for the treatment of his head injury and was one of the nine people injured during the attack. The insurgents were defeated, but Cudo lost a dear friend and a mentor.

“Otis gave his life to save mine,” said Cudo, who was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received in action. He paused for a moment and added, “He had encouraged me to follow my dream to go back to school and fly. I live everyday wanting to follow in his footsteps.”

Inspired by Raible’s encouraging words prior to the attack, Cudo decided to go back to school. He enrolled in the aeronautical management technology program with a professional flight concentration at ASU's Polytechnic School, one of six schools that are part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He soon plans on switching his major to aeronautical engineering to delve deeper into his interest.

“I did extensive research on schools with the best flight programs and veteran support systems,” he pointed out. “I considered applying to the U.S. Naval Academy but chose to come to ASU because of its great flight program and its proximity to home.”

However, the transition from being in the military to being outside of it has not been easy.

“Coming from the military, you are used to respecting authority figures, so seeing a student sleep in class or not listen while a professor is talking would get on my nerves at first,” he said.

But Cudo turned things around quickly. He sought therapeutic help through ASU’s Pat Tillman Veterans Center, found other ASU students he clicked with, and joined several study groups to improve his grades. He also became heavily involved with the on-campus Veterans Club and was named its vice president soon after.

“The Pat Tillman Veterans Center at ASU has helped immensely with the transition process,” he said. “The people there have helped me map my path to school. The center has also provided resources and been a superb support system every step along the way.”

Cudo has also recently earned his private pilot single-engine, as well as multi-engine licenses. He hopes to become a test pilot after completing his degree from ASU.

“I love watching the sun rise at 6,000-7,000 feet while flying,” he said. “Seeing everything from above gives me a different perspective on things.”

The veteran also doesn’t hesitate to share his story and struggles with other veterans through the Veterans Club and Pat Tillman Veterans Center.

“Talking to others who may be in the same situation as I have been in the past has helped me immensely,” he explained. “When you go through such experiences, you have to choose to stay on a path that leads to greater things and turn around the negative into positive.”