By Alun Thomas
USAREC Public Affairs
June 2, 2017
PHOENIX - For many immigrants, serving in the Army is a way of giving back to the nation that has given them a better life and helped make their dreams become reality.
Their service makes the Army a unique melting pot of Soldiers from many diverse races and nations.
Part of this pot of Soldier immigrants is Sgt. Erick Fernandez, a recruiter for Tempe Company, Phoenix Recruiting Battalion, who was born and raised in Panama. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 18, leaving behind his family and a country beset by the reign of Gen. Manuel Noriega.
Fernandez, 39, was born in Panama City at a time when the U.S. Army had a major presence in the area, something with which he said he was fortunate enough to be closely associated.
"My father was one of the first Panamanian teachers to teach on one of the American bases there, so I grew up in an environment around Soldiers," Fernandez said. "My father was a physical education teacher, so I would play baseball in leagues on base with the Soldiers."
Fernandez said he has fond memories of growing up in Panama, despite the war in December 1989, where Noriega was deposed by the U.S. military.
"I was at home the day it started. It was right near the end of the school year," Fernandez remembered. "I woke up that morning and heard explosions and gunshots... the whole city was at war. I asked my mother if there was any school that day and she said, 'No. Just stay in bed, there's a war going on.'"
Fernandez said it was tough not knowing what the outcome would be, but thankfully he and his family weren't negatively affected by the war.
"My neighborhood was actually very close to Noriega, just a few blocks away, but we were in a dead-end street so we weren't close to the fighting," he said. "Having the U.S. Army so close was great for us, and life in general was always positive."
With the backing of the Department of Defense, Fernandez's father was granted U.S. citizenship for his work with the Army.
"He did it for us - my brother, sister and me - so we could have another option in life," Fernandez said. "As soon as I turned 18, I left for the U.S. I grew up in an American environment, so I told my father I was leaving and moved to Miami."
Fernandez said he lived with some friends who had already moved from Panama, making the transition much easier.
"I started going to college right away and worked on my English, which wasn't very good," he recalled. "The whole culture in Miami was easier for me to adapt to, coming from a Latin country. It wasn't as shocking as moving to somewhere like Boston or New York."
Fernandez started to consider the military as an option in 2005 after seeing his older brother join the Army and having witnessed the Army in action firsthand.
"After growing up around the Army and seeing my brother joining, I decided to do it," Fernandez said. "I had always wanted to; however, I was focusing on school and living a nice life in Miami."
"When it really hit me was in 2005 when we had some hurricanes in Miami and I saw the Army Reserve come down and help with food and supplies. We were without power for days, and their hard work to get everything going again inspired me to enlist."
"I said, 'I want to do that, I want to give back to the country which has been so good to me,'" Fernandez continued. "I wanted to give back to the community and make a difference."
Fernandez enlisted as a motor transport operator and said his initial goals were to go to school and gain full citizenship.
"I got my citizenship after only four months of being in the service," he said. "The Army did everything for me, all the paperwork. It was a dream come true."
This allowed Fernandez to pursue his education, which has resulted in both bachelor's and master's degrees, which he worked on while deployed in Afghanistan with the 1st Mountain Division in 2011-12.
"I was able to go to school online there and get my bachelor's and three years later I got my master's degree ... the Army paid for all of it," Fernandez said. "It was my goal. I didn't go out much with my friends, but it was worth the sacrifice."
Fernandez spent a year in Honduras and also applied for special forces as part of his ongoing Army career, with his path eventually leading to recruiting in Phoenix, where he's spent the last two and a half years.
"Recruiting can be very challenging at times," Fernandez said. "You can try your best to get someone to join, but you aren't always in control of their decision," he said. "My experience has been very rewarding, however, because I feel like I've been able to make a difference in the community."
"When you go out and try to enlist new Soldiers, you can see how you're helping somebody," Fernandez continued. "You can provide them with an education, a job and purpose. It's rewarding when you give them that purpose."
Seeing the end result is the icing on the cake, Fernandez said.
"When they commit, go to basic training, and do it, and then come back and say 'Sgt. Fernandez, thank you' - that makes it all worthwhile," he said.
Fernandez said he is about to move to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with his wife Judith and is excited about their future, one which he said he owes in many ways to the Army and the life it's given him, all the way from his origins in Panama.
"It's hard to imagine my life without the military," he said. "It's given me the life I always wanted."