MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Under a star-studded night in their native Cuba, a young boy and his stepbrother made a promise to each other. If they ever somehow made it to the United States, they would join the U.S. military and find a way to give back to the land that gave them freedom.
Nearly two decades later, and a host of obstacles thrown his way, that young boy and his brother have made their dreams come true.
Senior Airman Osniel Diaz, a public health specialist, in charge of food inspection, workplace safety, sanitary standards and controlling communicable diseases with the 42nd Medical Group at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., is living a dream that just a few short years ago seemed impossible.
Throughout his childhood, Diaz and his family had dreams of reaching America, even after threats of imprisonment from the communist government. "One night, in Cuba, we decided that, when we got to the United States, we would join the military to give back to the country that gave us our freedom."
Freedom for Diaz and his family came in stages, when in 2002, his mother and stepbrother were allowed access to the U.S. Despite the rumors of threats and imprisonment, Diaz joined his family four years later when he was granted a travel visa.
When he arrived in Miami, he found that his stepbrother had joined the Marine Corps, as promised, but the journey to fulfill his promise to his new country had to wait a bit longer.
"I spent four years waiting to get my resident card so that I could join the military," said Diaz. "In the meantime, I worked as a computer technician. I didn't know English, so that was the only type of job I could handle."
Diaz and his family moved to Colorado during that time and, for a while, it looked like his dream of joining the military may not turn into a reality. "One day immigration called to interview me for the fourth time," said Diaz. "The problem was that I had to travel from Colorado back to Florida for the interview."
The interview was a success, and with his new resident status in hand, Diaz pursued his dream of joining the Air Force. But he found that joining and succeeding in the military had its own set of challenges.
"I was working at a good job, but my dream was still to be in the Air Force," said Diaz. "I understand that only one percent of the U.S. population joins the military and fights for their country, but, for me, joining was saying 'thank you' for my freedom."
First Diaz had to obtain an age waiver, then ran into the issue of the ASVAB or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. "It was horrible," said Diaz. "and I barely passed. My reading score was awful, but my scores on the other sections helped balance it out."
Diaz soon found himself unemployed and, with a wife and two small children to support, entering the Air Force held an extra sense of urgency. A month later, his recruiter called with an opening, with one slight twist. He had two days to report.
Diaz found that even though getting into the Air Force presented one set of challenges, getting through basic training presented an entirely different set. "I was always in trouble and I didn't speak English when I first got to basic," said Diaz. "My brother gave me good advice from his time as a Marine: 'Be a copycat. Whatever you see other people do - do that.'
"The first week of basic was hard. My collar was messed up and I kept getting yelled at for it in the cafeteria. I was so confused about it all that I didn't eat. I just drank water for a week."
Finally, someone in his flight told Diaz about his collar, that it was flipped up instead of lying flat. And, even though his language problem continued to plague him throughout basic, things began to improve for the new American resident.
With the help of a fellow trainee, Diaz continued to work on his English skills and not only made it through basic training, but also through his public health technical school.
"Even after I got to Maxwell, my English was pretty bad," said Diaz. "My first supervisor made me answer the phones for the first two months. She said I would answer the phones and read Air Force Instructions until I got better at English. And, it really helped! Hearing the language and trying to understand it all day improved my skills greatly."
Today, as an American citizen, Diaz gets a thumbs up from the one person who has watched him struggle from a dream-struck youth to a newly promoted senior airman.
"Osniel has changed his life because this country gave him the opportunity to pursue his dreams," said his mother, Lina Martinez. "He has put the maximum effort into his work to get ahead and has never given up. Even without mastering the English language, he has studied the computer field, joined the Air Force and is growing a family with his beautiful wife."