For me, there's no higher calling than service.
It's so fulfilling to serve in the assistance of others, to protect people and provide them with support in the worst times.
Military service was a rite of passage in my family. My father served in the Army during the Korean War. Two of my uncles also served, one of them in Vietnam. I had several cousins in the military during Desert Storm. And my sister ended up marrying a Navy man.
My parents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States during "The Great Migration" off the island during the 1950s and 60s. My father enlisted, and one of the places he was stationed was in Massachusetts, and he loved it. He liked the quiet. He had lived in New York City earlier, and he hated riding the subway.
So I grew up in Massachusetts. I was born in a small town called Leominster. It's well known for its apple trees (it's the hometown of Johnny Appleseed). Leominster, which has a population of about 40,000 today, is located in the middle of the state, north of Worcester and close to the New Hampshire border.
I lived in Leominster for 14 years, then my family moved to Salem, Mass., after my father got a job there. My father was also working extensively in the ministry. I graduated from high school in Salem, and I enlisted in the military. Financially, we didn't have the means for me to afford college, and I wasn't a stellar student.
As I planned my future, my father suggested that I enter the reserves instead of doing active duty service to cover my education, and that way I could get my degree. I went through Fort Devens, Mass., I enlisted at the Boston MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station), and I went into basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. And I did my AIT (Advanced Individual Training) in Fort Lee, Virginia. That was the beginning of my military service. I ended up loving the military. I enjoyed the structure and camaraderie and everything about it.
I moved from Massachusetts to New York for work, and I transferred to the Army National Guard in New York. In New York, it seemed like I was doing more operations — there was a huge ice storm in 1998 in the northern part of the state. A lot of families lost power and had to go to temporary shelters to get heat and food. We got deployed to support them and help the local law enforcement and local resources. We ended up using our military equipment to help remove snow and transport people to safety. That experience really opened my eyes to how integral the military is in times of need.
We went on a training operation at Fort Polk in Louisiana in the summer of 2001. We were there for two or three weeks. We successfully completed the training, and we came back. We were back about a week when the attacks happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
I was working in Lower Manhattan that morning when, less than a mile away, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers.
I wasn't on duty at the time. But as far as I was concerned, it was an act of war. Two planes don't just accidentally hit the World Trade Center. There are a million buildings in New York City.
I started walking toward the towers trying to reach my first sergeant, who was stationed at the World Trade Center on a counternarcotics operation.
And then the first tower collapsed.
I was heading up Broadway and a cloud of dust and smoke was coming in my direction. I saw an open deli and ushered everyone inside. We closed the door, and as soon as we did, the smoke dominated everything, all the way down Broadway. After the cloud dissipated a little bit, I wrapped a T-shirt around my face and went out again in hopes of connecting with my supervisor or helping any way I could.
Soon after that, the second tower collapsed.
Amid the mayhem, I came across two firefighters, one whose leg was severely damaged. They had just made it out of the World Trade Center. A nurse came out of nowhere and wrapped a tourniquet on the injured firefighter's leg.
We found an abandoned truck and helped get the firefighter inside.
"Take the truck and go to the hospital — he needs medical attention," I told the other firefighter. He hesitated. He wasn't used to taking someone else's truck. But it wasn't a time to worry about those sorts of things. We were under attack, and his friend's life was in the balance.
I connected with firefighters and police officers and made my way home to the Bronx, and after that I went to my military unit. Eventually we established communication with the first sergeant ... So many others weren't able to make contact with their loved ones. Later that evening, a small team, maybe 25 or 30 of us, drove down to Ground Zero with military vehicles to provide support.
We were there for a long time.
My military experience gave me direction on Sept. 11. It prepared me mentally to be able to execute my mission. It gave me a purpose beyond all of the death and devastation, and it helped me focus on the task at hand — searching for survivors and aiding local law enforcement.
I went on another operation, named Operation Noble Eagle, in February of 2002. Information and intelligence suggested that enemy combatants were trying to infiltrate the United States. I helped perform counterterrorism operations at locations that were deemed "high risk," including Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.
After that, it was non-stop — operation after operation after operation.
I was deployed to Iraq in November of 2004 and returned in January 2006. During my time there I did several operations. I trained international coalition forces, I trained Iraqi troops, mechanized mobile, my MOS (military occupational specialty) code at the time was what they call a hotel recovery operator in the 63 Whiskey series. My job was to provide maintenance services and to recover any vehicles that were abandoned or had been hit with an IED and collect those vehicles and bring them back.
I got an opportunity to see a lot of Iraq. I was further north than Fallujah, as far south as Tallil and as far east as An Najaf. In Iraq, it was regularly 100-plus degrees, extremely hot. On the military base, they provided as many accommodations as they could. It's a very impoverished country. There are good people there, but they're scared. They're afraid because the government rules with an iron fist. And if you are in dissent of their propaganda, they execute you and your family.
That happened to an interpreter who worked with us. Somehow they found out, and they tried to assassinate him. They ended up killing his brother but not him. He survived the attempt.
As poverty-stricken and war-torn as Iraq was, the landscapes are beautiful. The sun setting over the desert and the stars at night are just amazing.
I've also traveled to places like Panama and Germany and across the United States during my military career, and those visits gave me a deeper sense of culture, the chance to experience different languages and ways of life. As Americans, we often take the rest of the world for granted. It's very different to read about a place like Venice and to experience it, and watch Italians get mad at you because you took the wrong bottle of water. Or Germans get upset because you didn't drink enough beer.
It's funny how we have stereotypes about the rest of the world, and the rest of the world has stereotypes about us. The stereotype of the United States is a Caucasian male, that chest-thumping, arrogant American.
Many people I encountered overseas were surprised that there are Latinos living in the United States. My Puerto Rican descent worked in my advantage in the places I visited. When I was in Panama, I was able to speak Spanish — making the residents receptive and open to talk to us. Europe was the same way. France is tough. When we were in France we made a point to speak in Spanish so we wouldn't get cursed at. We got a lot more assistance that way.