Twenty-six years ago I took the oath for the very first time. I was being sworn in as a soldier for the United States Army in San Antonio, Texas. A few hours later, I was en route to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for the beginning of my military career.
I didn’t know much about the oath I had just taken. I didn’t quite understand it. How could I?
I had just spent 11 years of my life picking crops for a living. A life of hard work that began at the age of 7. I didn’t need an oath for that. I just knew I had to work in order to have food on the table. It was a necessity.
Sadly, my first oath was first seen in the same manner. It was something I needed to do in order to finally break the family cycle of being a poor migrant worker.
This oath meant that I wouldn’t have to break my back anymore. I wouldn’t have to pick cucumbers or tomatoes at 35 cents a hamper.
It was a road I had chosen not for service to my country or our flag.
I chose it as a service to my family and, quite frankly, selfishly, for my own benefit as well.
One thing was certain, though: I wanted to do more.
I don’t think I got my first true sense of “American” pride until graduation day from basic training. That day I remember being extremely nervous because my Army dress uniform had to be perfect for the ceremony.
Although I thought my fellow soldiers and I looked sharp and I felt good about what we had accomplished, the true meaning of it all hadn’t quite sank in.
That didn’t happen until I saw my drill instructors in their dress uniforms. The men who had trained me. The men who had broken me down to nothing and then built me up again to be a member of their squad, their platoon – their team.
As I saw my leaders in their uniforms with medals decorating most of the left side of their chests, I realized what I had joined, what I was becoming and, more importantly, what I had to strive for.
Five years later I found myself taking fire, cleaning up a mass grave site, and being slammed against a medical tank by the force of a landmine exploding just feet away from where I was standing. These were just a few of the things I endured during my deployment to Bosnia.
That same year, I took the same oath again. The only difference now was that I knew exactly why I was taking it and what it meant.
I now had a family of men and women in uniform who depended on me as much as I depended on them.
Our own safety and wellbeing not only relied on our performance and dedication, it also relied heavily on the performance and dedication of the men and women who stood beside us.
The sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers who, like me, proudly wore the United States flag on their arm.
We relied on each other just as people less fortunate relied on us to give 110 percent in the performance of our duties.
They did so because they believed that their freedom and their futures depended on us.
After our deployment and in the safety of our own nation, I had a soldier’s father come up to me at a family cookout. He thanked me for always being there for his son.
“My son says he wants to be like you and that he will follow you through hell if need be,” he said.
I truly didn’t know how to respond. How could another grown man want to be like me? Why would he say that he’d follow me through hell if needed?
Me… this poor migrant from south Texas. After all, I was just a young man who had started life picking crops; who would possibly want to be like me?
In my mind, I was still trying to emulate my drill instructors from basic training and the other sergeants and officers who had already made an impact in my own career. The leaders who had somehow seen potential in me and had decided to share their own knowledge with me.
Well, like anything else in life, my military career wasn’t all positive. I did suffer a major setback.
Sadly, my experiences in Bosnia were too much for me to handle. As I continued to perform my duties as a leader of soldiers, a conflict within me grew. I was so consumed by wanting to be a great example that I completely disregarded my own wellbeing and failed to realize I needed help.
In time, I spiraled downward into darkness and believed I could only find solace at the bottom of a bottle.
The pain I was feeling at the time was immense. It was blinding. I couldn’t see that I was drowning. I couldn’t see that I was hurting people around me.
I ended up hitting rock bottom one night after having gone on a drinking binge. I beat my best friend so bad that he was remanded to a hospital bed for almost a week.
You would think this incident would wake me up and open my eyes. It didn’t.
It wasn’t until my commanding officer called me into his office to discuss my actions and a choice I had to make that I realized how damaged I was.
On that day, I faced another great leader who had seen something in me. Unfortunately, he had also seen the worst in me.
That day, in his office, he made me realize I had forgotten my oath.
Not only had I forgotten my sacred vow, I had also let him down and all the other leaders before him. The people who had believed in me. The ones who had affirmed that I belonged at their side.
Far worse, though, I had betrayed the trust of my own soldiers. The very people who looked up to me and wished to be like me one day.
And, still, he gave me another chance. He said, “There’s greatness in you!”
“I refuse to believe that all your achievements have been for nothing,” he said. “I refuse to believe the German Army has awarded you with a medal of honor for no reason!”
He pleaded with me to prove him right! To prove that the medals on my chest meant something! To prove that the soldiers who would follow me through hell were not wrong!
Well, I’m happy to tell you that through their belief in me, I did just that.
I was able to recover from my alcoholic state and continued to serve honorably through the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11.
Then in 2003, I decided to seek another career and left the military after 10 years of service.
After leaving the Army I researched various agencies where I could continue serving my country.
It took two years for me to finally get the call in 2005 and be afforded the opportunity to join the United States Border Patrol. So on Nov. 14, 2005, I took the oath of office once again.
I took the oath with the intentions of using my experiences and the knowledge gained in the military for something far greater than me. I wanted to share my spirit with other people. I wanted to serve again.
Next month will be my 14-year anniversary with the United States Border Patrol. I must say that it has been a challenging yet extremely rewarding career so far.
As in the military, not everything I’ve dealt with in my green uniform has been positive.
To begin with, although I was able to finally go back home to south Texas, my family was completely against my career.
How could I join an agency that was responsible for apprehending and deporting my own kind, especially when I still had family living in Mexico?
My own mother felt she couldn’t tell her friends about my new job.
This was a sad ordeal for me because I am an only child – her only child.
Having grown up in a very poor community also added new challenges for me as an agent.
I had grown up around people who had dedicated their lives to the business of illicit narcotics, and it didn’t take long before one of these individuals recognized me in uniform and decided to threaten my entire family.
He did so for the sole purpose of having me look the other way in the performance of my duties.
Unfortunately for him, I had taken an oath.
I had made a solemn vow to perform my duties at all cost in defense of my country and, more importantly, in defense of my community, my family and for the courageous men and women who work at my side.
This person was not aware that I had learned years back how my partners relied on me just as I relied on them.
The best part of it all is that I was surrounded by amazing leaders who listened to my concern and acted accordingly to have that threat taken care of.
Nine years after taking my oath, I was asked to do so again – this time as a Supervisory Border Patrol Agent.
People around me were once more convinced that I could join their ranks as a member of management. A leader of agents.
I must say, I’ve yet to experience anything as humbling and amazing as being asked to lead the men and women of the Border Patrol.
Throughout my time in the patrol I’ve seen agents struggle from time to time but I’ve also seen agents lift each other up on every one of those occasions.
I’ve lost a few friends and seen how our green family has been a shoulder to lean on when needed.
I’ve been amazed by the encouraging acts of our leaders as they fight for the workforce at local venues with city officials, with the media, and even in Congress.
I’ve witnessed a compassion and dedication like no other. All this in times when it seems the majority of the country is against us.
In my life, I have been extremely fortunate to work among individuals who want to do more.
They are a constant reminder of how I began my journey.
That poor kid surrounded by crops that needed to be picked.
That kid who spent his childhood wondering if he could achieve what others around him had achieved.
Even now, I can only hope to one day encourage others to go beyond their own abilities. To make them believe that they are capable of so much more.
I hope I can one day be that mentor. Be the one who motivates others and encourages them to stay strong and stay the course.
Not a day goes by when I don’t remember the tough days I’ve been through.
I remember my mother’s sacrifice, my grandparents’ hard work, and all the individuals who have somehow seen something in me.
My ultimate goal is to one day make them proud.
Proud that I took their guidance and achieved something great because of it.
That I was able to follow in their footsteps.
To our leaders, my leaders: I beg that you never stop believing in people like me.
I plead with you, because individuals like me will always believe in you.
Men and women like me will always strive to one day be just like you.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.