WASHINGTON --- Sgt. 1st Class Miriam Lemus said she often thinks how fortunate she is to be a Soldier and an American.

Life could have been a lot different for her, but possibly in a bad way, she said, had her parents not decided to come to America from El Salvador, a tiny Central American nation that was in the grips of a civil war during the 1970s.

Lemus, who is now the operations and training non-commissioned officer at the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, explained how her parents came to the United States.

Her paternal grandfather, who worked for the Salvadorian government, was assassinated by anti-government terrorists in the mid-1970s, she said. His distraught widow, Lemus' grandmother, took immediate action to protect her family. She came to the U.S. with her brother and her own children, including Lemus' father.

At the time, there were a lot of kidnappings of boys and men, who were forced to join the rebel forces, she said. The only way out of the violence and abductions was to escape to the U.S.

Likewise, her maternal grandparents escaped to the U.S. At the time, they were divorced, she said, adding that even so, her grandmother helped her grandfather to escape, along with their children, including her own mother.

Once in America, the two sides of the family settled down in Los Angeles, where her mother and father met, married and had children, including Lemus, who is now 34.

LEARNING ENGLISH

Lemus was born in the U.S. and grew up bilingual, although she did not speak the language until attending an all-English pre-school in Los Angeles.

"When I got there, everyone spoke in English," she said. "I was really confused. I had to learn English quickly.

"But being so young, I was like a little sponge, soaking it up," she said. She mastered the language so well that she says she can express herself better in English than in Spanish.

Lemus' father picked up English as well, taking night courses. Her mom, who also took English classes, never really acquired the language, she said, and still only communicates in Spanish.

Ironically, in basic training Lemus said she struggled with writing letters to her mom in Spanish, since she never learned to read or write it, only speak it. To remedy her deficiency, she said she took Spanish courses in college, just to learn to read and write in Spanish.

LEARNING ABOUT CUISINE

Learning English wasn't the only hurdle.

Lemus said she also had to become accustomed to eating American food, since she grew up on Salvadorian and Mexican fare in Los Angeles.

When she arrived at basic training, she said their first meal was pork chops. "I'm like, 'What's that? I'm not going to eat that,'" she said with her easy and lighthearted laugh.

Even though she got used to eating American food, Lemus said she salivates just thinking about Salvadorian food, from banana leaf-wrapped tamales to pupusas.

ENJOYING ARMY LIFE

During her senior year in high school, Lemus recalls discussing with her parents her plans to attend college and how to pay for it. Since the family wasn't wealthy, she said her idea was to work part time and attend school part time.

Lemus said the thought of joining the Army never occurred to her until she was asked to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery in high school. A recruiter mentioned the education benefits and that sealed the deal for her.

So in 2000, Lemus, who was 17, joined the Army. She was the first in her family to do so. She said her younger brother, Pedro, later joined the Navy.

Although Lemus said she initially joined the Army for college benefits, she took a liking to the Army way of life and decided to stay.

"It's not only because I enjoy the Army way of life, but it's also my way of giving back to my country," she said.

The Army has also provided Lemus the opportunity to travel, meet people from a range of cultural backgrounds, and pursue her education.

Before joining the Army, she said she had never met a Cuban, Dominican or Puerto Rican. That interaction opened her eyes to the richness of her own Hispanic heritage.

Lemus said she is grateful her parents chose to immigrate to the United States and embraces her multicultural background.

Mostly, she said, "People are curious about my last name and where I came from. They mostly think I'm Mexican," she said, laughing again.

"I welcome the question because it gives me a chance to tell my story, a story I'm proud and happy to share with everyone," she said.