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NEWS | Nov. 30, 2011

National Guard Soldier overcomes immigration, education challenges to live dream

By Army Capt. Kyle Key National Guard Bureau

OCALA, Fla. - Coming to America was easy, but the journey to stay here was paved with one obstacle after another, for Army National Guard Pvt. Angel Chavez and his family.

Chavez grew up in Panama and had always dreamed of coming to the United States one day.

"I would tell my friends in elementary school," said Chavez. "They used to laugh at me. I would tell them, I am going there one day and I'm going to make it."

In 2005, Chavez arrived in the United States with his parents and three siblings. They settled here where his father started a business repairing and exporting vehicles to Panama. His mother found a job as a cosmetologist.

He and his siblings were doing well in school and adjusting to their new lives when a big problem arose. Their visas expired and their entire family was subject to deportation.

The Chavez family tried every legal avenue to stay in the country.

The dishonor of being illegal immigrants wore on the children. By 2008, his mother divorced and remarried a U.S. citizen and shocked the family by disappearing for two years with her new husband.

The children remained positive, progressed in school and their father's business continued to grow.

In 2010, Chavez' mother came back demanding the children from his father. After an argument one morning, he took a load of vehicles to Port Canaveral, Fla., but was met at the docks by federal agents from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. His mother had reported his location and Mr. Chavez was deported.

Chavez had no money, nowhere to live and was forced to live on the streets. He felt that the heart of his family had been ripped out.

"It was absolutely horrible," Chavez recalled. "My dad wasn't there anymore. I didn't want to leave, but I had to. I just didn't have an option. I dropped out in the middle of my senior year at Belleview High School. I became depressed."

One of his brothers stayed with his mother here, while his youngest brother moved in with his sister and her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Todd Corona in Tennessee. Corona, an active-duty Soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., took over custody of Chavez and his little brother.

Chavez tried to enroll at the local high school but was told he would have to repeat the last year and that many of his credits wouldn't transfer from his previous high school.

He then made plans to earn his General Education Development, or GED, diploma and worked two jobs all the while.

Chavez had an ambitious nature and wanted more.

"Even though I was making good money, I didn't feel right about not having a high school diploma," he said. "I didn't want to live with that for the rest of my life."

He enrolled in an online high school and thought he would check out his opportunities in the military. When he talked to a recruiter with the Army National Guard, he found out that his online high school was not accredited but he might be eligible to transfer to the National Guard Patriot Academy high school and join the Army National Guard.

Chavez was beside himself and said a high school diploma is all he wanted.

After passing all his tests and physicals, he shipped off to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. While he was there, the drill sergeants in his platoon assisted Chavez with naturalization paperwork for him to become a U.S. citizen.

Upon graduation, he reported for the National Guard Patriot Academy in Indiana and his application documents were transferred to Indianapolis.

With persistence, he eventually received good news in the mail.

A letter arrived Sept. 21 and Chavez was ordered to appear before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration field office in Indianapolis on October 21, 2011 to swear in.

"As soon as I walked into the building in my military uniform, everybody there was surprised, looking at me," Chavez said. "And I was surprised that I was the only one to become a citizen there that day."

A cadre member from the Patriot Academy drove Chavez and his battle buddy Army Pvt. Raul Martinez to Indianapolis. Martinez completed basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and attended the Patriot Academy with Chavez.

"Your dream came true!" Martinez said as he gave Chavez a hug. "You got it!"

"I didn't know what to say," Chavez said about becoming a citizen. "I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to celebrate so much. It's something that most of my people can't accomplish every day. It's something really great for me."

Chavez, who is the first in his family to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, called his father in Panama to tell him the news.

"He was crying with joy," Chavez said, adding that his father and his siblings were proud of him.

Two weeks after becoming a citizen, Chavez completed another milestone in his life - graduating from high school.

On Nov. 4 Chavez walked across the stage at the National Guard Patriot Academy with an accredited high school diploma and one semester of college under his belt.

"This is a great opportunity that I've had and I thank God every day," Chavez added. "I look at my diploma and naturalization certificate every day. This has been a dream come true for me."

Despite what has happened in the past, understanding and forgiveness has healed his family, and according to Chavez, the best moments are yet to come.

"When I see my father return to the U.S. legally, that will be a great moment for me," Chavez said. "I want him here with us."

Chavez will attend training weekends with the Florida Army National Guard and is scheduled to report to Fort Jackson, S.C. to learn his new job skill as a light-wheeled mechanic in February. Once he returns, Chavez will enroll in college and plans to earn his commission through the Army ROTC program.

"Every time that I was lost, didn't know what to do, and thinking this was it for me," Chavez said, "I just kept on going."