BOGOTÁ — As Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mauricio Garcia, and his Colombian safety officer counterpart, Capt. Cristian Castiblanco, walk the flight line at a Colombian Army base, inspecting for safety hazards and violations, he could not help but marvel on how his life had come full circle.
Garcia, a UH-60M Black Hawk pilot and aviation safety officer, is deployed here as part of a Spanish-speaking technical assistance field team from the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command’s training unit, the Security Assistance Training Management Organization, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The U.S. government funds the five-person TAFT team, via Section 333, Building Partner Capacity, in Title 10, United States Code, to train the Colombian Army on how to run and manage their Advance Rotary Wing School, along with their aviation safety, supply, logistics and maintenance programs.
Due to his unique background and life path, Garcia’s official role of aviation safety officer is routinely overshadowed by the cultural, language, and in-depth knowledge he has accumulated over the past 20 years.
In the beginning
Born in Medellín, Colombia, to working class parents, he loved going out to the local airport to watch airplanes take off and land, knowing that one day his dream of flying might be a reality.
“My father was a transit agent and mother worked in a beauty spa, so I knew that it would be very hard for my parents to pay for flight school,” Garcia said. “My only chance to fulfill my dream was to join the Colombian Army or Air Force.”
At 16 and straight out of high school, he enrolled in the Colombian Officer Academy to prepare him for a career as an officer in the military, and hopefully into the cockpit of either a fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft.
Unlike military academies in the U.S., students at Colombian military schools have to fund the tuition costs themselves. In 1999, that worked out to about $1,200 per semester plus the cost of Garcia living by himself in Bogota where the school was located. Garcia’s parents worked hard to make sure he could stay in school.
In December 2003, after three difficult years of being away from home, with long hours devoted to dual-track military science and law studies at the military academy, Garcia graduated at age 19.
He soon found himself assigned as a second lieutenant in an Army infantry battalion, not what he was expecting, leading soldiers against terrorist and insurgent groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.
Over the next three years, Garcia did what infantry soldiers do, attending advanced skills training like the counter-guerilla courses, the Urban Special Forces School, and graduating from the grueling Lancero School.
Built as a collaboration between the U.S. Army and Colombian military, the Lancero School is a result of a request in the mid-1950s by then-president of Colombia, Lt. Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who asked the U.S. Army for help in building an advance tactics school for their military leaders. U.S. Army Capt. Ralph Puckett, a Ranger assigned to Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regimental Combat Team, had the experience and language skills to make that happen.
Puckett and his team led that effort from 1955-57 and built the bedrock of what is known today as the Escuela de Lanceros, or Lancero School.
“One of my proudest memories of my time with the Colombian military was graduating from Lancero School,” Garcia said, who still wears that tab on his uniform.
However, after three years in the military, sometimes spending months in the Colombian jungle working counter-narcotic operations, Garcia knew it was time for a change.
“I left the Colombian Army because I never had the opportunity to fly,” he said.
Twist of fate
While Garcia was preparing to do a year of community service as an intern lawyer, a mandatory requirement to receive his law certificate, fate presented him an unexpected turn as his uncle in Miami, Florida, invited him to the U.S. to study English.
“I never saw coming to the States as an opportunity, mainly because I didn’t speak English,” he said. “But I wanted to learn English to prepare myself better for a future career as a lawyer in Colombia.”
In 2007, Garcia moved to Miami to start classes at a community college. After his girlfriend from Colombia visited, they discovered their relationship was going to change with an unexpected arrival.
“She’s from a very conservative family so we got married,” Garcia said. “My wife was an American citizen from birth, and after we decided to stay and live in the U.S., I told my wife that the minimum that I can do is to serve my new home country.”
Even without the language skills he thought he would need, Garcia enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 2008, where he spent the first eight months at the Defense Language Institute, in San Antonio, Texas.
“I passed my proficiency test and was shipped out to basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma,” he said.
After basic training, Garcia moved on to his military occupation skill training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as a 68J medical logistics specialist, which involved receiving, storing and issuing medical supplies.
Over the next four years, Garcia served with the 31st Combat Support Hospital at Fort Bliss, Texas, deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, back to El Paso, and then in 2011 moved the family to Washington, D.C., when he took an assignment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“When Walter Reed closed [due to a Base Realignment and Closure decision] I had to decide between going to Bethesda or Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where I eventually decided to go to,” he said.
“Even after moving to Fort Belvoir, and helping to open up the hospital in January 2012, I was thinking about flying and how to make that happen," Garcia said.
In early 2012, then Sgt. Garcia, working at the community hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, decided to continue in his quest to become an aviator.
Powered by his dream to fly Black Hawks, he spent weeks planning and studying for the Army’s Flight Aptitude Selection Test, his next big hurdle.
“I bought some books and studied all this pilot stuff, all about flight instruments, it was all in technical English so it was pretty hard,” Garcia said. “But becoming a pilot was my destiny.”
Garcia was surprised he passed the test. Now, to build his warrant officer application package he would need letters of recommendation; at least one had to be from an Army senior warrant officer, preferably an aviator.
Not personally knowing any pilots, he thought there must be some at the Fort Belvoir’s flight line.
“I actually remember the day he walked through the front doors of the battalion, and I clearly saw he was lost,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Stan Koziatek, the Battalion Safety Officer for the 12th Aviation Battalion at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. “I asked him ‘can I help you’ and he said he was looking for a pilot. I told him he was in luck, here I am, and then he told me his inspiring story.”
Over his career, Koziatek had met many soldiers asking for letters of recommendation, but in many cases, he felt they wanted to become pilots the easy way. In Garcia, he saw something different — an impressive life story, and a deep, steadfast passion for flying.
“I was like ‘holy cow’ it wasn’t easy what he did, coming from the Colombian Army, then Special Forces, moving to Miami to do better for his family, then joining the Army and all along he still wanted to be a pilot,” Koziatek said. “I was glad to help him as I saw he was an experienced soldier with a lot of leadership skills.”
Over the next several months, Garcia and his new mentor would spend hours talking and going through his package, fine-tuning every aspect and document to make sure it was perfect.
“I was super excited and went back years looking at statistics and ranks to see if I had a chance to get into flight school,” Garcia said. “Most who got selected were crew chiefs or worked in aviation, so coming from the medical field I didn’t think I had a chance, even though I thought I had a strong package.”
Koziatek knew the hardest part of the entire process was putting the package together to submit.
“It takes a lot of preparation to put in the complete package, some people take almost a year to do it,” Koziatek said. “But Garcia was on it and had his packet ready within months. That’s how I knew Mauricio was dedicated enough to be a warrant officer, because he just didn’t give up, he put 100 percent into it.”
After his package was submitted, Garcia anxiously watched the Army’s MILPER Message site, hoping for good news. One day, after checking the site, he left to take a shower. While he was away, his phone pinged congratulatory messages.
“I jumped on the computer to make sure it was real,” he said. ”I was pretty emotional, I cried.”
In June 2012, Garcia and his family moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama, to start his flight path to becoming a Black Hawk pilot for the Army.
“Flight School is probably one of the most challenging trainings in the Army, physically and mentally; especially when English is your second language,” Garcia said.
After Garcia graduated from flight school, he was assigned as a Black Hawk pilot in Korea. Two years later Garcia and his family returned to Fort Belvoir, where he served in the same 12th Aviation Battalion, in the same building, that he walked into years earlier looking for a pilot.
For the next several years, Garcia would fly civilian and military dignitaries through the skies of the nation’s capital, accumulating more than 1,000 flight hours.
In 2020, Garcia accepted a tour as the aviation safety officer on a five-person Spanish-language SATMO technical advising team, tasked with training the Colombian Army to be self-sufficient in their aviation, supply, logistics and maintenance programs.
His duty location, a Colombian Army aviation base a few hundred miles from his hometown — an assignment to a career that has come full circle.
Reflecting upon the long flight path to get to this point in his career, he credits his parents, a father that lives in Miami, Florida and a mother that lives in Lorton, Virginia, for helping him accomplish his dreams and for believing in him.
“I also really have to say thank you to my wife and kids, for all their love and support,” Garcia said. “I know it has been hard for my kids to move so often and for me to miss so many important days with them. The most important thing I feel is to show them we have to serve our country. With hard work, discipline, and dedication you can achieve all your goals and dreams, so never stop dreaming.”
Garcia also credits the Army for giving him the opportunity to follow his dreams.
“No matter your social, economic, country of origin, or educational background, the Army has a lot of tools and programs to help you to pursue your dreams or goals,” Garcia said. “I am an excellent example of that, and in reality, just one example of what you can achieve in the Army. As a boy from Medellin who arrived in the U.S. 14 years ago, who didn’t speak English, then joining the Army, and four years later I was sitting down in flight school training as an Army aviator.”
Garcia’s story is not over. Within the next five years, he would like to get his master’s degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University, retire from the military and then work for the Department of State or Defense in a foreign policy position. He also hopes his story will inspire people to pursue their goals and never stop dreaming.
“Mauricio’s successful military career is an inspiration for others to follow,” Koziatek said. ”I am very proud of him and happy to be part of his success. People succeed when they have fun in what they do; Mauricio loves what he does and it shows.”
As a Lancero student many years ago, Garcia was taught “For a Lancero, the word ‘impossible’ does not exist.” Over the course of the last 16 years, he has personified that motto.
Today he is a testament that in the U.S. Army, the “sky is also not the limit!”
Editor’s note: On May 21, 2021, retired Col. Ralph Puckett received the Medal of Honor for his heroics during the Korean War.