FORT BRAGG, NC., May 1, 2019 - Soldiers begin to line up outside of a conference room on the first floor of Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, XVIII Airborne Corps, on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The tension radiating off of them is palpable. Some pace. Others mumble the Soldier's Creed under their breath over and over.
The cause of the tension: The Soldier of the Month Board.
As they begin to file in, Spc. Jonathan M. Figueroa, a human resources specialist with the battalion's Headquarters Support Company, readies himself to take on the board for his fourth time.
Success was not in Figueroa's reach at his first three boards.
On his fourth and final attempt, he recalled the anxiousness and nervousness he felt his first time attending the board.
"I was nervous but tried to hide it," Figueroa said. "I don't think the nerves ever really go away when you're waiting for something like that."
Figueroa, a San Juan, Puerto Rico native, came into the Army at the age of 34.
"I decided to join because I reached a cap on what I could do on the island," Figueroa said. "All the higher positions required speaking English, which I did not know how to do."
Figueroa's difficulties with his first three boards did not come from his lack of knowledge, but from his difficulty in speaking the English language.
Figueroa said that Puerto Rican education does a good job of teaching how to read and write but tends to leave out the speaking portion.
"I knew the material, and my NCO's knew that I knew it," he said. "I just could not express what I was trying to say."
Figueroa's drive to excel and win the board did not go unnoticed.
He was hand-picked to attend the board by 1st Sgt. Simpson A. Barber, first sergeant for HSC, who had seen Figueroa's potential and had watched him grow since he first came into the Army.
"I've had the pleasure to work with Figueroa since he was a private," Barber said. "When he first arrived, I noticed he had a language barrier, but I saw the potential in him to grow."
Barber pushed Figueroa to go to the board on numerous occasions, seeing his potential and noticing that what he was missing was not knowledge, but confidence in his English-speaking abilities.
"The first time I saw him come into the board, all I saw was sweat trickling down," Barber said.
Barber did not want to see that potential go to waste, so he worked with Figueroa and his leadership to develop a plan of action.
"I went up to him and his noncommissioned officer, told them what they needed to do, and they executed," Barber said
Figueroa then began to study non-stop. He took all the time he could to overcome his language barrier and master the material.
Yet in the midst of battling to improve his English, Figueroa was hit with more stress as the deadliest hurricane to hit the Caribbean since 2004 threatened his home and his family.
"When (Hurricane Maria) happened, I was already here with my wife and youngest son," Figueroa said. "But I was really worried because it left the island (Puerto Rico) destroyed, and I feared for the rest of my family who were still on the island."
"It had me worried a lot," Figueroa said. "A group of us within my unit actually tried to volunteer to go down there in support, but the mission was filled."
When Figueroa found out that the support mission to Puerto Rico was already full, he knew he had to focus harder than ever to keep his goals in focus.
"One is always going to be worried," Figueroa said. "But I knew I had to keep going with what I was pursuing - nothing good was going to come from stopping."
"English was not going to stop me; it does not own me," Figueroa added. "I had taken time from my family and friends for this board, and I was going to make it worth it."
As he walked into the board for his fourth time, the board members noticed the difference.
"The transformation from his first board to the last was night and day," Barber said. "He came in confident and killed it."
Figueroa won the Soldier of the Month Board on April 23, 2019.
"I felt a great honor when I won," Figueroa said. "I couldn't wait to call my father to let him know the news, and hearing him say "I'm proud of you son, keep going and don't stop" was the best feeling I could get."
By winning the board, Figueroa proved that barriers such as age and language are not enough to dissuade someone who wants to achieve a goal.
"I joined the Army late and not speaking English," Figueroa said. "I want to be the example for those who think they can't achieve a goal to show them that it is possible if you just believe and never give up."