By Staff Sgt. Jeffrey SmithJanuary 23, 2014
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Army Sgt. Oscar Vazquez, a cavalry scout with the 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, took his first steps on American soil as a child, when he and his mother illegally crossed the Mexican-American border in Douglas, Ariz. They swiftly moved by foot to a local Walmart where they secured transportation to take them to his father, who was working as an agricultural laborer in Phoenix.
Vazquez excelled in the classroom at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix. He particularly enjoyed being a part of the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program, where he aspired to become a soldier in the Army. He wanted to go to Army basic training between his junior and senior year like some of his friends did, but his foreign citizenship disqualified him. Army enlistment would have to wait.
In the meantime, Vazquez didn't let his foreign credentials hold him back from performing at a high level as a student and cadet. He was awarded the JROTC Officer of the Year trophy and he earned a spot on the school's marine science program's robotics team.
The team's main project was to construct a remotely-operated underwater vehicle to compete at a national competition in Santa Barbara, Calif. The competition had two divisions, the Ranger division and the Explorer division. Most high schools entered the Ranger division, while colleges and universities competed mainly in the Explorer division.
"We saw who was going to be in the Explorer class, and it was mainly universities, and the Ranger was all high schools. We were like, 'Well, if we can join either one, we might as well go against universities, that way if we lose, then it will be against a university and not another high school'," said Vazquez.
Vazquez's team worked throughout his senior year designing and building "Stinky," their underwater robot, for the upcoming summer competition.
The team named the robot Stinky because of the strong fumes generated by the pipe glue used to construct it.
"We had to put it together in one afternoon, so we had to glue all of the joints at the same time," Vazquez said. "It was a small area, maybe the size of a cubicle, and it stunk really bad in there. We would go in and work for like five minutes and then rotate out with each other."
Stinky's capabilities included neutral buoyancy, on board video cameras, an audio recorder, a water sample collection point, a robotic arm, and trolling motors for movement.
Vazquez's high school team, along with their colorfully named underwater remotely operated vehicle, Stinky, went on to beat out collegiate teams from across the county, to include the highly respected and prestigious team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The competition earned Vazquez national recognition, and Arizona State University offered him an academic scholarship. He accepted the school's offer and spent the next four years earning his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.
Vazquez met and married his wife, Karla, while in Phoenix and the pair had their first child, Samantha.
Through all of his accomplishments, Vazquez was still saddled with illegal status. His wife and child were both American citizens, and he knew he needed to try for legal residence.
He made the tough decision to return to Mexico and apply for legal U.S. residency. His application was denied. Consulate officials told him it could take possibly a decade for approval. He filed for a waiver, but accepted the decision and acquired employment working the nightshift at a manufacturing facility in Sonora, Mexico.
He remained in Mexico for nearly a year until Carmen Cornejo, a Phoenix-area businesswoman, who supports immigrants who strive for higher education, contacted Sen. Dick Durbin, who in turn recommended for his waiver to be approved by the Department of Homeland Security.
"Dick Durbin asked Homeland Security to consider my case again and out of nowhere it just got approved for a visa to come back," Vazquez said. "I had a green card and a social security number - and for the first time, I got a driver's license!"
Vazquez used his qualifications to fulfill his lifetime dream of being a soldier.
"I got back to the United States in August of 2010, and on Feb. 1st, 2011, I went to basic training," said Vazquez. "I really wanted to go and fight for the country that had raised me."
"Luckily, I got to JBER July 19th,  and we left to Fort Polk to train, and then three months later we deployed. So, I got to go on that 2012 [Afghanistan] deployment, which was really what I wanted to do!"
As a paratrooper, Vazquez is particularly proud of his active jump status.
"When I was in high school, I remember watching the movie 'Band of Brothers' and seeing them jump out of planes. I was like 'That's awesome! I want to do that one day.' It stuck with me. I couldn't get airborne in my contract, but I pushed myself in basic and AIT [advanced individual training] to be able to go to airborne school, and I did it! So, it's pretty good. It's like how they say about this country 'If you set your mind to do something, and as long as you work for it, you will get it.' So, I've gotten everything I've tried to get so far, so it's been great!"
During his time in the Army, Vazquez has gone on to attain full U.S. citizenship. As a combat veteran, Vazquez feels he has earned his citizenship.
Army leaders are impressed with Vazquez and what he has accomplished.
"I was inspired and deeply moved by Sgt. Vazquez's personal story," said the 1-40th's commander, Lt. Col. Richard Scott.
Vasquez has perseverance and determination, and through the support of a loving wife, he has been able to fulfill his dreams, despite having the odds stacked against him, said Scott.
"It is exceptional individuals like Sgt. Vazquez who serve amongst our ranks that make us the best Army in the world," said Scott.
Vazquez's story is so inspirational that a movie based on his robotics team's victory is currently in production. The movie, which stars George Lopez and Jamie Lee Curtis, is due to be released later this fall.