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Newton man helps rebuild in war-torn areas

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

A Newton County resident featured in a recent HBO documentary about the life and death of the United Nations' Sergio Vieira de Mello has done more than his share of infrastructure building in the war-torn Middle East, but he's not planning to call it quits anytime soon.

"I'm too young," said firefighter/paramedic Andre Valentine during a telephone interview in early June from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. "I'm only 51 years old. And where does it say I have to retire when I'm 65? If my back and my knees hold up, I'll keep doing what I'm doing."

The New York native, who has lived with his family in Georgia since 1993 (and in Newton County since 1998), works for Virginia-based DynCorp International, a global government services provider in support of national security and foreign policy objectives, delivering support services for defense, diplomacy, and international development.

Valentine has been deployed numerous times in support of U.S. military personnel throughout Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other hot spots and since January has served as the fire chief for a military base in Afghanistan, supervising 60 employees, two fire stations and one airfield.

"Wherever I'm needed with my skills, that's where I go," he said.

Joining the military right out of high school, Valentine (who with his wife has six children, two who attend Eastside High School) said he's been trained as a firefighter, combat medic, special operations medic and instructor. After leaving the military, he worked for emergency services in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore before moving South.

Prior to his overseas deployment, Valentine worked in Douglas County, Monroe County and for the city of Forest Park, which was where he worked while being interviewed for the HBO documentary "Sergio."

The film, which made its debut in early May, details Vieira de Mello's final U.N. assignment, when he was asked by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to serve as his special representative in Baghdad. Targeted by al-Qaida terrorists, Vieira de Mello died on Aug. 19, 2003, when a truck bomb explosion destroyed the Canal Hotel, killing nearly two dozen people and injuring 100 more.

Vieira de Mello and another man wound up trapped in a two-story hole, where Valentine and U.S. Army Reservist William von Zehle attempted a dramatic rescue, but the U.N. representative was already dead by the time they reached him.

Valentine said filmmakers came to Forest Park to interview him for the documentary and he said he had a "neat reunion" with von Zehle.

"I hadn't seen Bill since that day," he said. "And we sure weren't looking at each other then."

He also joked that even though he was part of "Sergio," there were plenty of people who saw the documentary -- which was honored at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival -- before he did.

"It's ironic," Valentine said. "It seemed like everyone saw it before I did. I was in Monrovia (the capital of the African nation of Liberia) last year and some lady contacted me through Facebook asking if I was the guy who was involved in the bombing in Baghdad. When I asked her how she knew about it, she said she'd seen it at a film festival in Indianapolis."

Working on a one-year renewable contract, Valentine said that despite the hardship he and his family has endured, he's "taking things one day at a time" when peering into the future.

"I might stay another year," said Valentine, who'll be home in late June to take the family on a quick trip to Florida. "But it is a huge sacrifice and I miss a lot of days with my kids, days you can't make up. My kids in high school are coping pretty well -- they're both A students. This hasn't had a negative effect on my family, but the moment it did, I'd be out of here."