GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- The Soldier nervously scanned the hotel lobby. Suddenly, his eyes lit up and a broad smile immediately filled his face.
"That's my dad!" he said, and rushed to the hotel door. The Soldier embraced his father, and it was clear he didn't want to let go. Who could blame him?
This was June 24, 2019. He had waited 23 years for this moment.
Spc. Brandon Paiz, remembered the day he learned he was going to leave his home.
"I was little, about nine and eight months," Paiz reflected. "My mom said, 'Hey we're going to move to the United States with your stepdad, Roger.'"
Paiz, now a tall, muscular masonry/carpentry specialist with the 358th Engineer Company, talked about the apprehension he felt as a small child leaving his birthplace, Guatemala.
"It was a culture shock," Paiz said. "The first thing I noticed about the United States is that is was really clean, the streets were really clean. It sounds weird, but they handed me a fruit - a banana - and I was like, holy cow, this thing is huge!"
Paiz said he was quick to adapt to his new home, starting with a new-found love of bacon. He also quickly learned to speak English from an unlikely source.
"Spongebob was my favorite cartoon when I was little," Paiz said. "It was in Spanish, but when I came to the U.S., I kind of remembered the lines, what they were saying."
He took three years of English as a Second Language classes and, with the help of Spongebob, didn't need any more classes. Still, it was not easy for the boy.
"There were times I just wanted to go back and see my friends again," he admitted. He had some scattered memories, such as living in a tall apartment building in Guatemala City, where he would go to the roof and play soccer alone for hours. He remembered buying chips from a lady named Dora, and huge celebrations each March in Guatemala City where people would carry massive statues of the saints down the streets.
"I would make rugs for the celebration," Paiz said. He spoke quickly and with excitement when recalling his tight-knit community.
Paiz first lived in New Jersey, where he had to re-adapt to being part of a new community. He said while he was learning English, some of the neighborhood kids didn't want to involve him in activities. However, just as he had used Spongebob to improve his English, Paiz used another tool to make new friends: kickball.
"I was really good at soccer, so when I started playing kickball, then the kids finally started talking to me," he said with a laugh.
He was curious about his father. He didn't know too much about him other than his name was Jorge and that he had seen some occasional pictures of him on his aunt Lorna's Facebook. He didn't understand why he had not been there, but he forgave him.
"People make mistakes," Paiz said. "His mistake was he wasn't really around as much as he should have been. I'm going to continue to build our relationship, because I can tell he regrets it. I don't want to give him a hard time with more of the guilt he feels already, I'm just excited to get to know him more."
JOINING THE ARMY RESERVE
"I joined the military for opportunity and education, but above all, I wanted to give back to the country that opened up the doors for me," Paiz said. "I wanted to do it for the longest time, but I didn't know exactly how I wanted to do it - whether I wanted to be a cop, but I wanted to do something to give back to the community, so I decided on the military."
Paiz said he didn't want to leave his mother, who had at this time divorced from Roger, so he decided on joining the Army Reserve. He didn't realize it yet, but Paiz was about to join another tight-knit community.
He enlisted as a masonry/carpentry specialist and joined a rowdy group of construction Soldiers from throughout Pennsylvania, the 358th Engineer Company, located in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania.
Joining the military proved beneficial in many ways. First, Paiz, who works as a sales representative for a cable company, was able to get the sense of service and giving back to his country as a Soldier.
Secondly, Paiz was re-united with a friend from high school, Spc. Pierre Mede, who just like him, had migrated from another country - Haiti - to the United States as a child. The two quickly went from friends, to inseparable best friends.
But most of all, although Paiz didn't know it yet, the tiny unit from Pennsylvania was about to bring him back to Guatemala. The unit's annual training mission was in support of Beyond the Horizon, an annual training partnership between U.S Army South, and one of the nations in their area of responsibility in Central and South America. As it so happened, this year's rotation was in Guatemala, where the 358th Engineers would be building a medical clinic in the mountain village of Tojocaz.
Paiz knew his unit was going to be traveling to Guatemala. He knew that he would be flying in to Guatemala City where he would meet his aunt Lorna, who he had not seen in several years, but had been very close to growing up. But Paiz was not prepared for what would happen next at Guatemala City Airport.
"Obviously I recognized him, because I had seen him through photos," Paiz said. "When I walked through the door ... my heart just dropped. I knew this was the moment that I had been envisioning in my head for years - I just didn't think it was going to be that day.
"I hugged my aunt first, then my other aunt, and a family friend. Then it was his turn. I was really nervous when I finally met him."
It was a moment he said had rehearsed in his mind countless times.
"I was really shocked, nervous, overwhelmed," he said. "I had practiced what I was going to tell him for so many years, but it wouldn't come out. I didn't cry or anything, but I was glad that I finally closed that chapter in my life, and as it so happened, the military has done that for me.
"My heart was racing, and when I finally hugged him I was like, this is happening. This is real. Twenty-three years later I finally got to see my father."
One of the Soldiers snapped a photo of the brief, impromptu meeting. Paiz would carry it with him as he worked on the clinic with his friend Mede. It was a brief moment, but the two planned a second visit from Paiz in August.
Paiz' story affected his new brothers in the 358th. It provided the extra bit of motivation the Soldiers needed on their construction rotation. Three weeks is not a long time, but if you ask the Soldiers, three weeks high in the mountains of Guatemala, sweating and grinding in the hot sun for more than 12 hours every day can be very long. To add to it all, the 358th fell into a situation where they were already several days behind on the project.
The Soldiers would leave at 5 a.m. every morning, and come home dirty, sweaty, sore and tired after laying brick until sometimes well after 8 p.m. But though they acknowledged their fatigue, none complained. Because of Paiz, this mission meant something more to them.
His non-commissioned officer, Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Pearce probably said it best: "We respect each other as people. Knowing the fact that one of the Soldiers is originally from Guatemala, and that we're here to help this community and this is his native country, I think everybody has pulled together to say 'We want to do this.' We are motivated to make this happen so we can say look what we did for this Soldier's native country."
GOODBYE, FOR NOW
After waiting 23 years, Paiz had met his father and could look forward to the trip in August. As it turned out, he would not have to wait that long.
A couple weeks later, when some of the military leadership learned of Paiz' unique situation, they arranged for him to hop on a helicopter that was already going from the base the Soldiers were staying at with their Guatemalan counterparts in Huehuetenango to Guatemala City.
The flight was picking up some high-ranking officials and flying them back, so Paiz would only have a few minutes to see Jorge. They met for coffee at the Intercontinental Hotel in Guatemala City. Once again, his aunts were there and his cousin too. When everyone sat together at the table, it was as if the family had been together all along. Laughter filled the air.
The talk was of pride. Paiz' cousin, Celia told him, "I am so proud of you that you became an American Soldier. I am proud that you and the other Soldiers work with the people here on this mission."
There was more laughter, and then the room became quiet. Only Jorge spoke, and though he tried to remain composed, his son's face brimmed with emotion. His father was apologizing.
"I'm very proud of you that you are an American Soldier," Jorge said. "I'm very proud that you are a good person and you make the right choices. You could have gone another path, but you chose the life of a Soldier. That's because you were raised well by your mother."
He went on to say that although he had a family of his own, he still thought of his son even if it he felt as though he could not be there.
"That doesn't mean that I don't love you and I hope we can maintain strong communication moving forward. I'm grateful that life gave us an opportunity to reunite." He went on to say that when he saw him now, even as a strapping 23-year-old man, he pictured an 8-year-old boy.
"My son. My blood. A good boy. A good son."
Finally, Brandon Paiz had gotten what he really needed from his father.