Refugee becomes Army officer
July 12, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- William Medina-Diaz had been adrift at sea for a week before he and his family were found.
Fleeing Cuba, the refugees gambled their lives on a chance at freedom in the United States, and very nearly lost everything. In August, 1996, his mother packed what little provisions she could muster, gathered up her boyfriend and two children and set sail for Florida in a small raft.
Today, Medina-Diaz is a second lieutenant in the Army, assigned as the executive officer for Company B, 369th Adjutant General Battalion.
"The military is a great thing, because of the opportunities. I wanted to become an officer, I wanted to have a steady job, serve my country and provide for my family," Medina-Diaz said.
He said his journey to America was an ordeal.
"We knew thousands of immigrants that didn't make it (to America) alive, and were attacked by sharks or by dying from not enough food or water," Medina-Diaz said. "We brought enough food, but in Cuba there is no such thing as to-go foods, so it was whatever my mom was able to pack. We had buckets of potable water and the salt water got into it, so we were not able to eat or drink the last three days of the journey."
After arriving in Key Largo in early September, the Coast Guard took the family directly to the hospital. They were lucky to be alive, they were told.
"They said one more day we would have died out at sea," he said. "We had heat burns all over, and a lot of our skin was off because of the hot sun and we were praying for rain. We spent one month in the Key Largo hospital."
They were taken to a Coast Guard base in Key West, and then to the Krome Detention Center for immigrants in Miami. They were eventually released to the Catholic Church, which helped them begin life in America.
Medina-Diaz, his mother and younger brother received parole for a year, and his mother participated in hunger strikes on their behalf to stay in the country. She later found a job and they moved from Miami after a year to Fort Lauderdale.
"We came to this country with nothing on our backs," Medina-Diaz said. "If you touch land (with both feet) you're good, but if one foot is on beach and the other on water, you get deported back. A lot of people get deported back right on the beach."
"I wanted stability and security for my kids and, at the same time, paying back to the country everything the country was able to give us," his mother, Olga, said through a translator. "(I am) very proud that he is serving in the Army and to serve in the country that has opened up its doors to us."
Medina-Diaz graduated high school and joined the Marine Corps in 2002. After hearing about the Army's Green to Gold Program through a friend, he decided to change military branch services and join the Army in 2008.
The Army's Green-to-Gold Program gives enlisted Soldiers the opportunity to become officers. Enlisted Soldiers can consider a scholarship by leaving active duty to attend college for a period of time, or seek out the active duty option for Soldiers who would like to remain on active duty and attend college.
Medina-Diaz chose the latter and graduated Campbell University in 2011 as an honor graduate through the Reserve Officer Training program of his class at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I tell my Soldiers to appreciate everything that is given to them," Medina-Diaz said.
He said the element he appreciates most about the Army is the ability to make Soldiers proficient in their jobs in order to help take care of battle buddies.
"Having joined the Army allowed me the opportunity to do the Green-to-Gold Program in order to better myself for my family, and those Soldiers under me," he said.
He said he remembers growing up in Cuba with little to no food, clothing and no opportunity to better himself as a man. When they settled in Fort Lauderdale, he took it upon himself to find work so that his mother could focus on raising his younger brother, Yuniel.
Yuniel Medina-Diaz followed in big brother's footsteps and joined the Army Reserves and now serves with the 758th Engineer Company in Miami.
"He is a good brother; he has always been there for me," Yuniel said. "He showed me that there were opportunities and that I could apply myself and become better, in school and career."
His younger brother said his mother is proud that both sons have turned out well and have respectable careers.
"I call this my country because it provided me with all the opportunities my birth place could not provide me. I would like to give my son everything I didn't have growing up, and I had absolutely nothing," Medina-Diaz said.
Now married with one son and expecting another child, Medina-Diaz is attending Webster College seeking a Masters degree in Business Administration.
"My home is here," he said. "I would not trade this country for any country in the world."