"If I can change one person's life…[all I want is] for someone to say 'if he can do it, I can do it too.' "
Sgt. 1st Class Ariel Romero solemnly offered the above sentiment when asked to reflect on the significance of his service with the Army.
Following 15 years of distinguished service as a combat engineer, Romero was recognized as the Department of the Army's winner of the 2018 Excellence in Service Award in a ceremony July 21 in Phoenix, Arizona. The award is given annually by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to military personnel who display dignified public service and acceptance of diversity.
As the largest and oldest civil rights organization for the Latino community in the U.S., LULAC advocates a culture of achievement for underrepresented citizens through education, economic empowerment, and civic participation.
Now the operations sergeant for the 84th Engineer Battalion at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, he gained so much through his journey from the island of Cuba to the island of Oahu.
"Although I left Cuba in search of a better life, I am deeply proud of the perspective I have because of my heritage," said Romero, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 from Havana, Cuba, in search of a better life. He added that receiving the award gave him a sense of pride and satisfaction.
Growing up in Havana, he decided that coming to the U.S. would give him and his future family more opportunities. Although his hometown friendships and cultural traditions ran deep, the poverty and his longing for self-sufficiency inspired him to reach for something with a more positive outlook for the future.
In 2001, when Romero was 24 years old, his father, who was a powerful role model and inspiration during those times, moved him to Miami, which he now calls his U.S. home. He subsequently earned enough money to do the same for his mother and moved her to Miami as well.
Having a home in the U.S. was nice, but after the attacks on September 11th, Romero felt a calling to serve the country as a way of giving back for the opportunities he was provided. He enlisted as a combat engineer based on the "cool factor" characterized by the job. He also had the fortunate opportunity to gain his American citizenship through his voluntary service.
"I only planned to serve my initial contract to give back something", he stated. "But once I got over the difficult transition of military life in a new country, I felt at home."
The trying transition and the inherent adversity of not being a native English speaker molded his life in the Army and shaped his approach to leadership. As a recruit, Romero was given a tough time by drill sergeants who couldn't understand his thick accent.
Romero stated, "I wanted to show my drill sergeants that I wasn't any different or less capable just because of the language barrier."
Even today he still has some difficulty with language, but he's in a much better position to articulate his thoughts because of how his career progressed. Only six years after joining the Army, Sgt. 1st. Class Romero earned his drill sergeant badge. He said that being a drill sergeant was not only the most challenging job of his career, but the most rewarding to date.
"I wanted to teach Soldiers to not feel the same way as I did as a Latino. I wanted them to see my success and emulate it."
He continued to show courage and resilience as life presented him and his family a difficult blow this year with the untimely loss of his beloved wife.
Romero is now a single father of two, and acknowledges it's been a very trying time.
"I was in a bad place, and didn't know if I wanted or could continue my service with the Army. But I gained strength from my kids," Romero said somberly.
He recognizes his wife and kids as his biggest role models and his inspiration. Through tough times, Romero professed that it was often his kids who told him, "Dad, it's going to be okay."
His current inspiration for serving and leading Soldiers is a direct result of the unwavering love and support from his kids and the spirit of his wife. While some people may claim finances, material objects, jobs or education as goals for their future, Romero's primary goal is honorably finishing his Army career. His vision of the future is one in which his children grow up to be good people because of his example.
"I don't care much for the money as long as we are comfortable. If my kids grow up to be good people and make a positive difference in the world that is all I want."
Romero can often be found fishing, camping, or hiking in his spare time. He often reflects on the adversity he braved in his life, and he has no regrets. A proud Latin American, Romero wants to continue impacting Soldiers and people positively to influence a better future for all.
"The best advice I've received as a leader is to put yourself in someone's shoes. Empathy and integrity are paramount to leadership and developing the next generation of Soldiers who understand and appreciate diversity as an asset to the Army and our country."