PHOENIX -- For many immigrants, serving in the U.S. Army is a way of giving back to the nation that has given them a better life and helped to make their dreams a reality.

It's a selfless service that makes the Army a unique melting pot of soldiers from many diverse races and nations.

Army Sgt. Erick Fernandez, a recruiter for Tempe Company, Phoenix Recruiting Battalion, is part of this group. Fernandez was born and raised in Panama, but left for the United States at age 18.

Now 39 years old, Fernandez was born in Panama City at a time when the U.S. had a major presence in the area.

"My father was one of the first Panamanian teachers to teach on one of the American bases there, so I grew up in an environment around soldiers," Fernandez said. "My father was a physical education teacher, so I would play baseball in leagues on base with the Soldiers."

FOND MEMORIES

Fernandez has fond memories of growing up in Panama, despite living through Operation Just Cause in December 1989, when the U.S. military deposed Gen. Manuel Noriega.

"I was at home the day it started; it was right near the end of the school year," Fernandez remembered. "I woke up that morning and heard explosions and gunshots…The whole city was at war. I asked my mother if there was any school that day, and she said 'No, just stay in bed, there's a war going on.'"

Fernandez said it was tough not knowing what the outcome would be, but that he and his family weren't negatively affected by the war.

"My neighborhood was actually very close to [Noriega's residence], just a few blocks away, but we were in a dead-end street, so we weren't close to the fighting," he said. "Having the U.S. Army so close was great for us, and life in general was always positive."

With the backing of the Defense Department, Fernandez's father was granted U.S. citizenship for his work with the Army.

"He did it for us -- my brother, sister and me -- so we could have another option in life," Fernandez said. "As soon as I turned 18, I left for the U.S. I grew up in an American environment, so I told my father I was leaving and moved to Miami."

ADAPTING QUICKLY

Fernandez said he lived with some friends who had already moved from Panama to Miami, making his transition much easier.

"I started going to college right away and worked on my English, which wasn't very good," he recalled. "The whole culture in Miami was easier for me to adapt to, coming from a Latin country. It wasn't as shocking as moving to somewhere like Boston or New York."

Fernandez started considering the military as a career option in 2005, after his older brother had joined the U.S. Army earlier.

"After growing up around the Army and seeing my brother joining, I decided to do it," Fernandez said. "I had always wanted to; however, I was focusing on school and living a nice life in Miami."

"When it really hit me was in 2005, when we had some hurricanes in Miami and I saw the Army Reserve come down and help with food and supplies," he continued. "We were without power for days, and their hard work to get everything going again inspired me to enlist. I said 'I want to do that. I want to give back to the country which has been so good to me.' I wanted to give back to the community and make a difference."

He enlisted as a motor transport operator and said his initial goals were to go to school and gain full citizenship.

"I got my citizenship after only four months of being in the service," Fernandez said. "The Army did everything for me, all the paperwork. It was a dream come true."

The Army also gave him the opportunity to pursue his education, and he earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees, which he worked on while he deployed in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division in 2011- 2012.

"I was able to go to school online there and get my bachelor's, and three years later I got my master's degree. It was my goal. I didn't go out much with my friends, but it was worth the sacrifice," he said.

RECRUITING DUTY

He spent a year in Honduras and also tried out for Special Forces as part of his ongoing Army career. His path eventually led to recruiting in Phoenix, where he has spent the last two and a half years.

"Recruiting can be very challenging at times. You can try your best to get someone to join, but you aren't always in control of their decision," Fernandez said. "My experience has been very rewarding, however, because I feel like I've been able to make a difference in the community."

"When you go out and try to enlist new soldiers, you can see how you're helping somebody," he continued. "You can provide them with an education, a job and purpose. It's rewarding when you give them that purpose."

Seeing the result is the icing on the cake, Fernandez said.

"When they commit, go to basic training and do it, and then come back and say, 'Sergeant Fernandez, thank you,' … that makes it all worthwhile," he said with a smile.

Fernandez said he is about to move to Fort Bragg, N.C., with his wife, Judith, and is excited about their future -- one which he owes in many ways to the Army and the life it has given him, all the way from his origins in Panama.

"Now that I'm married and my wife is going to school through the Army also, it's hard to imagine my life without the military," he said. "It's given me the life I always wanted."