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When I was four, my family fled Cuba because of the country’s Communist regime. We spent three years in Costa Rica waiting for visas so we could come to Miami. We weren’t allowed to work while we were there. The way that we survived was that my dad, a devout Catholic, was given a classroom at a church to teach catechism classes. We blocked off the windows and made furniture. We gave what we made to the priest, who sold it as donations to the church, then he gave us the money and we lived on that. My job was to make wood putty out of glue and sawdust and patch the nail holes. I don’t know if my dad made me do it to have me out of the way, but I learned young how to be a carpenter.
I joined the Army Reserves in 1998 because we came to this country for freedom, and I always thought that somebody needed to defend this great country and give back a little bit. I had been married for 10 months with my first daughter on the way when I got orders for a combat deployment to Iraq, in my role as a Civil Affairs Soldier. When I got back, my daughter was already walking. That was difficult. It was hard on my wife too. My daughter had carried around a photo while I was gone and kept saying, “Where’s Daddy?” My wife had to be the one telling her that I was OK, but she didn’t always know that was true.
I had wanted to do something where I was giving back, not taking away.
What really affected me in Iraq was seeing so much death, destruction and suffering. I had wanted to do something where I was giving back, not taking away. Construction has always been that for me. My other four deployments were to Central America, where we built schools, government centers and clinics as part of their infrastructure. I was in Panama for almost two years building a 30-foot by 10-foot building that the villagers use as a school, and for hurricane shelter and doctors’ visits once a month.
Just that little building has changed their lives. You get so connected to the population — the little kids will come and hug you — and it’s super rewarding to see how you’ve helped. I have that same feeling on our Make-A-Wish project here in Miami. Yes, we’re doing a building, but again, this is an opportunity for families to come in and escape a little bit of their sorrow and pain and enjoy time with their loved ones. Seeing what these families are dealing with puts things in perspective.
When you’re deployed, you’re gone from everything. Not just your family, right? Everything you love, everything you like, everything you consider a comfort — your bed, a hot shower, all of that. So, one of the greatest things about being back in the States is that I’m with my family every day. I’m seeing my kids and giving them hugs. Every day, I get to go home.
Juan Hernandez is a superintendent on our Make-A-Wish Southern Florida headquarters project, in his adopted hometown of Miami. He also serves as a Sergeant First Class in the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion based out of Puerto Rico. He and his wife, who recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, have three daughters.
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