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Serving Their Country

Child's Play Becomes Real for Cohen

The sixth and final part of Centre View's series on local residents serving in the War in Iraq is about two Centreville High grads — one who joined the Army and one who became a Marine.

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Ever since Michael Cohen was a boy of 7 or 8, he pictured himself someday as a soldier in the Army.

"He liked to play with G.I. Joes," said his mother, Rosamaria Alvarado of Centreville's Manorgate community. "I thought he'd grow out of it, but he was determined."

His wish came true, and now Cohen, 20, is a specialist 4 in the Army, somewhere in Iraq. His proud family also includes his father, Robert Cohen, and sisters Ana Morrad, 29, and Julie Arriola, 27.

Michael graduated from Centreville High in 2000 and, said his mother, he was very popular there: "Whenever he comes home, he goes to the school and says hello to the teachers, the principal and the counselors."

While in school, he belonged to the Latino Club and volunteered at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter with one of Centreville's counselors. He collected comics, played football, soccer and hockey for fun and, according to Alvarado, he "had a passion for dancing."

AFTER GRADUATION, Cohen spent a month visiting relatives in Mexico and Cancun and then was off to the Army. He did both boot camp and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga. "He's a ranger — that was always his goal," said his mother.

He got his ranger tag at Fort Benning, competing against 271 other hopefuls. "It's very hard, and only a few make it," said Alvarado. "But he did." After three weeks, Cohen was one of just 80 who qualified for ranger school.

He then received his ranger training in Savannah, Ga., later returning to Fort Benning in October 2002 for his graduation ceremony. Now, he's overseas with the 1st Battalion, 75th Regiment of the Rangers.

"He was sent overseas to Iraq in November, but we didn't know where," said his mom. "It was classified. The rangers parachute in and are used in special operations."

Robert Cohen says the "guts and glory" of the rangers appealed to his son. "They're a very elite group," he said. "The rangers' creed is 'Rangers Lead the Way.'"

Still, Alvarado initially worried about her son. "I was concerned about him," she said. "On the one hand, I didn't want to watch the news. On the other hand, I wanted to know what was going on, minute by minute." Most of all, though, she's proud of him.

"I'm glad he achieved his goal of becoming a ranger," she said. "He's having the chance to prove that he's been well-trained. I know he'll come back in one piece and very proud of his accomplishments. I'm feeling more confident now that he'll be OK."

HOWEVER, MICHAEL WILL BE GONE for longer than she'd anticipated. "Now that they declared that we won the war, I thought it would be a few weeks, but it'll be longer," explained Alvarado. "But I'm more comfortable, now that things are shaping up over there. And I trust him — he has a good head on his shoulders."

When Michael deployed, said his father, he had just returned from three weeks on a mission in northern Afghanistan. Afterward, when he was given a break for a couple weeks, said Robert Cohen, the family figured it was because he'd probably be away in Iraq for a long time.

"When he called me to say goodbye, he said, 'Dad, I'm going to work,'" said Cohen. "I knew what it meant. We have no idea where he is or what he's been doing [because of the nature of what the rangers do]. It's very nerve-wracking."

But while admitting that he, too, worries about Michael — who'll turn 21 on June 30 — his father said, "He's so responsible, level-headed and mature — and such a conscientious person — I know he's up to the task. He really is an extraordinary, young man. He's a ranger, he knows his job and he's ready, willing and able to perform it."

"I have such pride in my son," continued Cohen. "He's doing something good for the country. This is also going to have a tremendous effect on the world. This is going to shape history for decades."

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NOTE: At presstime, Cohen received word that Michael had returned safely to Georgia and planned to zip home this weekend for a quick visit. Said his dad: "We're very, very happy."