LATHAM - At age 15, Elsa Canales arrived in the Long Island suburb of Selden from El Salvador.

She spoke very little English. Her parents and five older siblings had left their Central American country to escape rampant violence in 1999.

Nineteen years later, New York Army National Guard Capt. Elsa Canales is an experienced logistics officer and company commander, with nine years of service, a degree from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and two deployments to Kuwait.

Latina Style Magazine recognized Canales for her military accomplishments during their annual National Latina Symposium during which 12 women serving in the Armed Forces were honored.

Canales represented the Army National Guard.

Being part of the event was a terrific experience, Canales said. Not so much because she got an award, but because of the women she got to meet there.

"A lot of time you think that you are a minority, but when you see so many women in a room full of female generals and colonels it gives you hope that one day you can be in those positions," she said.

"I've always been proud of being Latina, but just being in that room and hearing amazing stories made (me) kind of feel like, wow!" she said.

She's the second New York Army National Guard officer to be honored by the magazine. In 2017, Col. Isabel Smith, chief of staff of the 53rd Troop, command, received the award.

Canales entered the Army relatively late. She was commissioned in 2009 when she was 26; four years older than officers who enter college at 18 and then commission four years later.

After finishing high school, she worked on an associate's degree at a local community college before going on to Stony Brook for her bachelor's degree, Canales said.

At Stony Brook she went to a job fair and saw a table set up by National Guard recruiters.

"I started looking at the pictures and I thought, that looks awesome," she remembered. "I went back home and started thinking about it and I thought, 'What better way to give back to this country, that gave so much to my family, than to actually join and serve.'"

So Elsa Canales, college student, also became ROTC Cadet Elsa Canales and then 2nd Lt. Elsa Canales when she graduated.

Her first assignment as a lieutenant in the New York Army National Guard was in Company G of the 427th Brigade Support Battalion.

In 2012 she deployed to Kuwait as part of the battalion's Company D. Once in Kuwait she was assigned as the executive officer to the forward support company working for the South Carolina National Guard's 4th Battalion, 118th Infantry.

She got back from that Kuwait deployment and then went back overseas in 2013 with the 642nd Aviation Support Battalion.

She had transferred into the unit for a captain's position and when she learned they were deploying she figured it was her duty to go with them. Canales said.

On that deployment she was an assistant operations officer working in the battalion headquarters.

Since returning from Kuwait she's worked as an operations officer in the joint operations staff in Latham and in the logistics section of the 42nd Infantry Division and served in the headquarters of the 427th Brigade Support Battalion.

Currently, Canales works full time as a Department of Defense civilian employee in the Operations and Training Directorate at New York National Guard Headquarters, while also serving as the commander of Company A of the 427th Brigade Support Battalion.

Canales only applied to be considered for the Latina Style award because Col. John Andonie, the New York Army National Guard's chief of staff, told her she should apply.

Andonie said he asked Canales to apply for the award because she is an excellent officer and he thought she would be a great representative of the Army National Guard in general and New York in particular.

Her first response, Canales said, was to ask her Operations and Training boss, Col. Christopher Panzer, if she could decline Andonie's request. He said no.

So Canales filled out the paperwork, asking questions about her career and background, and forgot about it. Then at Annual Training she got an e-mail saying she had been selected as the Army National Guard winner.

The best thing about winning the award, Canales said, was being able to be part of an event with so many women with the shared background of being from a Hispanic background and being in the military.

She's very used to being only one of two or three female officers in a meeting, Canales said. And the fact that she has an accent makes her stand out even more.

"You have to make sure that you make a good first impression," she said.
But being there with all those other successful Latina military women made her realize that "anything is possible," Canales said.