MADISON, Wis. – Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, the top enlisted soldier with the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was 5 years old when his parents fled communist Cuba on one of the last “Freedom Flights” in April 1968.
"My dad was working for a bakery company," Conde said. "They made Cuban bread and pastries. A couple of years after Fidel [Castro] took over, my uncle's company was taken away from him. At that time, my dad was asked to become part of the local communist party. He refused, saying he wasn't a political kind of person. Within a month, he was fired."
With few options available, Conde's father went underground, buying and selling different goods. All the while, his family worried that he would be sent to the grueling sugar cane fields. Conde said his parents applied to leave Cuba to provide better opportunities for their children.
"My dad was 48, and my mom was 42 when they left," Conde said. "They basically left everything they'd worked for in Cuba. They didn't get money for their house or their car -- they left with nothing. I'm 49 -- if I had to start all over, … it brings you back to reality."
Conde's family settled in south Florida's Cuban community. After graduating from high school in 1980, Conde attended college in Minnesota and joined the Minnesota Army National Guard in 1983.
"What drove me to join the National Guard was I was going to school, and that would give me some extra cash. But that was only 20 percent of it," Conde said. "I looked at the opportunities this country has given me, all the freedoms and liberties you get. Many of us don't understand, I think, what it means to be an American, to live in the U.S. How do you give back? Military service is the way I chose."
Conde moved to Wisconsin in 1986 and joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard. He also served with the Florida Army National Guard in 1991 and 1992. As the command sergeant major for 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, he deployed to Iraq in 2005 for a convoy escort mission. In April 2009, he deployed to Afghanistan with an embedded training team, and five months later was assigned to Regional Support Team North Afghanistan as the senior noncommissioned officer for the Afghanistan national security forces development and infrastructure growth.
Living in River Falls in northern Wisconsin has coaxed the Cuban accent mostly out of Conde, but his heritage remains.
"I am who I am," he observed. "Cuban people are very hard-working and passionate about what they believe in. That's part of my Cuban heritage."
America, he said, is the land of opportunity.
"If you look long enough and work hard enough, you'll succeed," Conde said.
"There are great people in America, no matter what heritage they are," he explained. "We Americans need to understand that while there are differences and differences are good, we are better as a nation when we fully engage and understand what all heritages bring to the nation. Diversity means we understand what everybody can bring to the organization.
"I'm proud to say I was born in Cuba and earned the right to be an American citizen," he continued. "I'm proud of my service to this country."