CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
A trainee silently walks through the chow hall line on his first day of basic training. He holds his tray up despite being told not to. A training instructor approaches him, shouting at the trainee to put down the tray and push it. The trainee stares at him, confused. The instructor stops yelling after realizing the trainee’s disoriented demeanor.
“Do you speak English, trainee?”
The trainee tenses. He sets down the tray and gives his reporting statement. “Sir, trainee Mercado reports as ordered. No I don’t, sir.” One of the few English phrases the trainee has memorized.
“Where are you from?”
“Puerto Rico, sir.”
This was one of the first challenges that Master Sgt. Heriberto Mercado Rodriguez, 27th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron C-130 aircraft parts storage section chief, had to face along his Air Force career. But it was just one more hurdle on the path to his lifelong dream of being part of the military.
“My father was part of the Army, back during the Korean War,” Mercado said. “I lived with both him and my uncle, so I was around that culture a lot. While most other kids wanted to be doctors or firefighters, I knew that I wanted to join the military from the start.”
While it was his goal to join from a young age, goals can get shrouded or pushed to the side. As Mercado grew, he had to take on other challenges.
“Being from a military family, I had a lot of pressure to do well,” Mercado said. “I wasn’t the best kid, but I still did well enough. One day, when I asked a teacher about going to college, he laughed at me. He said ‘You won’t make it into college. If you keep up how you’re going, you’re going to become a drug lord and they’ll kill you in three years.’”
Wanting to prove the teacher wrong, Mercado worked harder and applied for his dream college, the University of Puerto Rico. They denied his application.
“I didn’t let that stop me though,” Mercado said. “I kept working and by the time I graduated high school, I made it into college. During college, I worked at a sushi place. In my second year of school, I got married and had my daughter. It goes without saying, it was really tough.”
One day, while working in the sushi shop, one of Mercado’s friends leaned towards him. “Hey, do you want to learn how to make real sushi?”
Eager for a new opportunity, Mercado agreed. His friend drove them to meet with Keiko Yabuuchi, Puerto Rico’s First Lady of sushi. From there, he spent years learning how to become a proper sushi chef. After being taught, Mercado decided to pursue a career in sushi crafting.
“I thought I could make some money to help pay for college,” Mercado said. “I decided to start working for catering. I would host for local events, and eventually started working at places like the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and the Coco Beach Golf Club. I was making good money, so after a college, I started my own business that same year. While I do remember it fondly, that place took over my life and made me lose track of my dream.”
Jampas Sushi Bar took up two years of Mercado’s life.
“It might have made money, but it didn’t do anything to support my family the way they needed,” Mercado said. “I was gone so often, I didn’t get to be with my wife or daughter as much, and it put a strain on us. I still didn’t feel right, either. I felt empty, hollow.”
Unhappy with where his life was going, Mercado needed to think about what he truly wanted to do.
“I was lost,” Mercado said. “My wife was there to support me, and told me she wanted me to be happy. So I had to think, and decided to join the military. I had been ignoring my dream for long enough, it was time to finally pursue it. With my wife supporting me, I knew I made the right choice. I went to see a recruiter and sold my restaurant. One year later, I was off to basic training.”
Then, 26-year-old Mercado, away from his home and family for the first time, stares up at the training instructor. Despite dreaming of joining the military, he was never active in learning English.
“Where are you from, trainee?”
“Puerto Rico, sir.”
The instructor, coincidentally also from Puerto Rico, starts to speak in Spanish. He continues yelling at Mercado the whole way down the chow hall line.
“It’s pretty embarrassing to get yelled at in a different language than everyone else,” Mercado said. “When you can’t understand the person yelling at you, it’s nice. You can kind of tune out the noise, since you don’t pick up on anything. But when you’re the only one getting yelled at in Spanish, you not only know what’s going on, but you also know everyone is staring at you trying to figure out why the trainee is getting yelled at in something other than English.”
Once trainee Mercado was at the end of the chow hall line, the instructor stopped yelling at him. He looked at Mercado and spoke softly, for only him to hear.
“Trainee, if you don’t learn English by the end of these eight weeks, you won’t make it in the Air Force.”
Determined to fulfill his dream, to make his family proud, Mercado found multiple avenues to take on this daunting task.
“Honestly, I was lucky to have the flight I had,” Mercado said. “There were two guys in my flight that spoke Spanish and English. They would teach me some necessary phrases and practice stuff with me like reporting statements. Not only that, but one was right in front of me in formation. He would whisper things to me if I needed help understanding. It took about three weeks for me to feel a lot more confident. By the end of basic, I was the one calling jodies. My instructors were impressed, and I was sure I made my family proud.”
After graduation, Mercado returned home to prepare his family to move. He also got to show his parents that he had done it, he had achieved his childhood dream.
“I remember the look my dad gave when he saw me in uniform,” Mercado said. “He looked at me and said ‘Son, I’m proud of you, really and truly proud.’ Then he told me it was the last time I would see him. He was right. He had cancer in his stomach and esophagus. He died 4 months after I left for my first duty station.”
The young boy who had aspired to be like his father, who had challenged himself again and again, who had started a new business and started his own family, had done it. He had joined the military, and still continues to this day.
“It’s been a challenging road to be sure, and I didn’t make it easy on myself. If I could go back to talk to 13-year-old Heriberto, I would tell him to prepare. If it’s really your dream, then you need to make sure you can achieve it. Learn English, start running and exercising. It’s up to you to make your dreams real.”