Former African child soldier helps Americans get fit

NEW YORK Tue Aug 31, 2010 8:53pm BST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - For most of his life, Tchicaya Missamou's warrior training made him into a killing machine. Now, he is using his skills to help Americans get fit.

Missamou's memoir, "In the Shadow of Freedom," recounts his childhood in Congo Republic and his journey to America, his tour in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps and, finally, civilian life in California, where he opened the Warrior Fitness gym that teaches Congolese and U.S. fighting techniques.

"By the time you finish this book, you will understand that there is not an obstacle that you cannot overcome," Missamou, 32, told Reuters. "I want people to control their own destiny."

Growing up in Congo-Brazzaville as one of 16 siblings born to his father's seven wives, Missamou's childhood was shaped by the violence that sprung up in the 1990s following the oil-rich central African nation's first democratic elections.

Missamou describes how, at around 14, he and his teenage friends were handed guns and a few grenades and put in charge of a checkpoint with orders to block members of rival ethnic groups from entering the area.

"I saw awful things during this time," he wrote in the book, co-written with Travis Sentell that was published earlier this month by Atria Books. "These militias had learned what a mighty weapon Congolese youth could be in a struggle."

When the fighting ended, the boys returned to their former lives and Missamou entered Congo-Brazzaville's gendarmerie.

Violence broke out again in 1997, and this time Missamou became a war profiteer. He assembled a convoy of armed men and struck lucrative deals with Brazzaville whites, most of whom had fled, to rescue abandoned suitcases of cash and valuables.

"The Congo was falling apart, but I was rich," he wrote.

As Missamou's success grew, so did his notoriety. With the help of his father, a police captain, he fled Africa while still a teenager. He ended up in California and found work at a martial arts studio. There, Missamou met a U.S. marine recruit who encouraged him to enlist.

Soon, Missamou was deployed overseas, going to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight for his adopted homeland. Through an executive order that fast-tracked citizenship applications of U.S. soldiers, Missamou became a U.S. citizen in 2003.

TALKING CURE

Despite a disastrous return to Congo-Brazzaville in 2004, when he was arrested and almost beaten to death, Missamou said he still dreams of returning to his homeland.

But Missamou, who wears his crisp, white U.S. marine's uniform on his book tour, said he also wants to give back to his adopted country.

In 2007, he opened The Warrior Fitness Camp in Valencia, California, where he trains students in military techniques as well as the skills he learned as a child in the African bush.

He has plans to expand it into a chain and is even pitching a reality show in which he would travel around the country and teach fitness, spirituality and nutrition to Americans with "weight issues."

"My workout is a mind game because I believe the mind is the most powerful weapon that we have on our body," he said.

But while he said he wants to give back to his adopted country, he said he sees his memoir as a route to dealing with his past.

"What I learned in America is that it's by talking that we heal. It's by talking that we change people's lives," Missamou said.

"America is the greatest country on earth," he said. "If you don't know what you got, then read this book."

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Christine Kearney)

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