JOHNSTON, Iowa – Staff Sgt. Henry Meza grew up on a farm in Siguatepeque, Honduras, a small town that didn’t see electric lights until he was grown. Meza spent much of his childhood helping run the family coffee business. At ten years old, he spent many days carrying 100 pounds of coffee beans on his back, transferring it to a horse that would take it back to the processing plant.
But in between the hours of work in the hot sun, Meza would catch a glimpse of Honduran soldiers as they trekked through the surrounding mountains. His grandmother would often host groups of soldiers and invite them to eat homemade meals with the family.
Although Meza continues to harbor a great liking for coffee and wholesome meals, he’ll never forget the times when his grandmother would say, “Henry is going to be a Soldier.”
Whether it was because of his outgoing personality, his athletic abilities or his love for the outdoors, his grandmother’s prediction came true — but the uniform he wears today sports a U.S. flag. Although Meza’s grandmother primarily raised him, he knew his mother through photographs and phone calls they would receive from New Jersey on their landline. At 12 years old, he left his grandmother and the aunts and uncles who raised him to join his mom in New Jersey.
“I played soccer, wrestling and track,” Meza said, “I was very active in sports in school. I graduated and ended up getting a scholarship to come play at Grand View University. So, I moved to Iowa.”
It was his freshman year of college when Meza met Capt. Bradley Roenfeld, who described himself as somewhat of an introvert.
“We had a mutual friend and then we just clicked, talking, hanging out, doing workouts together,” Roenfeld said. “He was definitely the more approachable, very social person, more outgoing than I was.”
It wasn’t long before both Meza and Roenfeld decided to enlist in the Iowa Army National Guard in 2012. The decision was made separately, but the two friends ended up attending basic training together. While Meza went the enlisted route and Roenfeld became an officer, their career paths taking them in different directions, their friendship remained and their families melded together.
When Roenfeld thinks about the kind of person Meza is and how his Hispanic American culture impacts his daily life, he remembers cheerful dinners with Meza’s relatives that made him feel like he had always been a part of the family.
He also thinks back to a moment in college. The exchange serves as a reminder for both of them that many people don’t know about the small cultural practices that come with being Hispanic American.
“I introduced him to a friend and he walked right up and gave her a hug,” Roenfeld said. “She’s like, ‘Who are you exactly?’ I’m like, oh that Henry’s, he’s my buddy. And it shows you that while it’s common practice where he’s from, it’s not here.”
While Meza has learned about and respects the norms of a country he didn’t spend time in for the first part of his life, he also encourages those who aren’t familiar with Hispanic customs to “simply ask.”
“If someone has a question, like ‘Why do you do something this way?’ he explains it,” said Roenfeld. “He says, this is how we do it in my family. He has never shied away from being authentic in himself and that’s something I hold in high regard for him.”
Meza’s charismatic personality and the work ethic he carries with him from his upbringing in Honduras are valuable skills he applies to the work he does in the Iowa National Guard, especially for his role in the Service to Citizenship program. The program allows young adults who joined the Guard to register an eligible relative who will receive assistance with the citizenship process.
Meza attends a variety of events to connect with people and educate them about the program. After a long waiting period and a lot of paperwork, Meza attained his citizenship in 2013, so he knows how complicated and daunting the immigration process can be.
“I think it doesn’t matter if you’re in the military, a lot of organizations love seeing diversity because it shows that we’re not just aiming toward hiring people,” Meza said, “and it does help make the National Guard stronger, because you have Soldiers from different walks of life. You can relate to people in the civilian world who might think it’s not for them, and then they see somebody who’s like them and they think, ‘Maybe this can be for me.’”