CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Before the War on Terror, the toppling of the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan, or the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a young boy from the Bronx knew one thing: he wanted to help.
Marine Corps Sgt. Jonathan L. Vasquez was that boy in New York City. Today, Vasquez is a Marine Corps reservist currently serving with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command-Southwest, in Helmand province, Afghanistan
“I’ve been that way since I was young,” said Vasquez, who spent four years persistently applying to become a New York City police officer after joining the military at the age of 17.
“Both the career choices I made happen to help people. It’s the best of both worlds, I say,” he said.
While already committed to the idea of public service, the attacks on the World Trade Center changed things for the then-12-year-old Vasquez.
“I was in social studies class -- go figure, history,” Vasquez recalled. “They actually brought the TV into the classroom and explained to us the World Trade Center was hit. At first they thought it was an accident, but then they told us it wasn’t. I actually wish I was older, and I had joined right then.”
As Americans paused to grieve and unite, he tightened his focus on the future. It was a five-year wait before he met the age requirements for military service and nearly a decade before he realized his dream of joining the New York City Police Department.
The wait and the right to wear the uniforms were worth it, Vasquez said.
“I don’t want to sound corny. It’s not like Superman or anything like that, but it feels good,” he said. “New York is very patriotic. You get a lot of grace and a lot of thanks. It’s an awesome feeling.”
Not every day is easy. Both jobs come with separation from family, constant stress, and the burden of responsibility. Not all the right choices are clear, Vasquez said.
“You don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to make a decision and go with it. That’s a trait of being a leader, especially in the Marine Corps where they grow you to become a leader.”
Vasquez said he takes it all in stride. The strain is difficult, but it also forges bonds between him and his fellow service members and police officers. Still, the risks are palpable.
“When you put on that uniform for your shift, you don’t know if you’re coming home,” Vasquez said. “You don’t know if you’ll [experience] a shooting or deliver a baby that day. It’s very stressful, and it’s every day of your life.”
Vasquez balances the stress with an inherent optimism. Whether he’s serving as a vehicle commander on a convoy in Afghanistan or working as a patrol officer out of the 47th Precinct, he’s upbeat.
It’s in his voice every day, a nasal-heavy New York accent even a Midwesterner could appreciate and a snicker-like smile to back it up. On patrol or drenched in sweat inside the sweltering gym at Camp Leatherneck, Vasquez keeps smiling, laughing and joking.
He’s the kind of New Yorker who will interrupt the climax of a perfectly good movie to point out the setting is his city. He’s got “attitude.”
“Not in a bad way,” Vasquez said. “I’m very respectful, and I’ll respect anyone as long as they respect me.”
Vasquez said his family back home worries about him, but their constant support is a source of strength. He said he finds contact with his daughter particularly uplifting.
“She puts a smile on my face,” he said, completely dropping his shield of military toughness. “I can see it in her eyes [when we talk online] that she really misses me … it feels good.”
Vasquez also has deployed to South America, Asia, and Iraq. At every turn, he’s brought his love for service with him.
“I’m grateful for all the things the military has done for me as well as the things I try to do for the military,” Vasquez said. “It’s the same thing for the police department. I’m glad I have a career back home I can go to and also help people.”