RICHMOND, Va. – A Virginia National Guard officer has taken up a unique post in South America after graduating from the Spanish-immersive Command and General Staff College course at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Maj. Angel Pastrana is serving as a bilateral affairs officer for U.S. Southern Command at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. It's a two-year tour with an option for a third year, and an opportunity Pastrana couldn't pass up, especially with a family connection.
"The interesting thing is, two years ago, I applied for it in Tour of Duty, and didn't get it," said Pastrana. "This time, it showed up as a nationwide announcement via email. I saw it and forwarded it to my wife and asked her if she wanted to move to Colombia. She's from Bogota. She was all in. I applied and went through the interview process. A total four candidates interviewed for it, and this time I was blessed to get it."
His selection for the position in Bogota happened as he was completing his intermediate-level education at WHINSEC, an 11-month resident course conducted entirely in Spanish.
"I first heard of WHINSEC through Maj. Maldonado,” said Pastrana, referring to Maj. Carlos Maldonado, the commander of the Virginia Beach-based 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion and a graduate of the same course. "I was initially going to do the long-distance learning ILE, and my commander recommended I apply for the residential. So, when I heard about this opportunity, especially in my native language, I thought it would be a great challenge, so I took it on."
Pastrana, who is Puerto Rican, explained the WHINSEC course brings together U.S. service members from active-duty and reserve components and representatives from SOUTHCOM partner nations.
"It's a school that's fully immersed in Spanish," said Pastrana. "We participate in it with partners from Latin America and the Caribbean services, inclusive of representation from all U.S. military services. Some of the members involved in our class were from Mexico, Paraguay, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The curriculum included our doctrine, human rights initiatives, and military history."
Despite growing up speaking the language, Pastrana said the Spanish-immersive academic environment proved challenging.
"My Spanish language level was second grade when I left Puerto Rico, so those first couple of weeks took me a while to get up to speed," he explained. "I grew up speaking Spanish, but as far as being immersed in it, writing and reading and comprehension, I had to really work hard to develop the vocabulary."
Pastrana comes from a family with a history of serving in the military, and his father and grandfather urged him to follow suit.
"My grandfather served and fought in World War II. When I graduated high school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. My dad served in the Army, too. They both recommended the military," said Pastrana. "They didn't share much about what I was going to experience except that it was going to be as rewarding for me as it was for them. So, I went into it eyes closed and grew a passion for the discipline and its customs, and everything the Army had to offer. I've found that there are no limits here to what you can accomplish."
Pastrana served four years active duty before getting out of the service, starting a civilian career and finishing college. Soon, the call to serve sounded again.
"I got hired on as an Army Materiel Command Fellow, a program meant to develop the future civilian leaders of the command," he said. "While I was in the fellowship program, one of my fellow students was in the Army National Guard and suggested I finish what I had started. I joined the Virginia Army National Guard, and the rest is history."
That combination of service, schooling and civilian experience eventually led Pastrana to the WHINSEC course, a challenge and an opportunity to represent the Virginia National Guard.
"I'm humbled to be an alumni of WHINSEC. I think it's pretty amazing that Virginia has had somebody in a seat here every year for the last four years," said Pastrana. "Considering that there are 50 states plus a few U.S. territories with respect to the National Guard, the Army National Guard is allotted approximately only five or six slots.
"The most important thing I feel I've gained from this experience are the relationships I've developed here," he added. "It's also humbling to watch our partners learn alongside us, not just our military stuff, but to learn from their cultures and their experiences within their particular services. Understanding and seeing how they do things in their countries, having that exchange of diverse perspectives throughout the tactical, operational and strategic operations proved meaningful."
Those aspects of the course provided a perfect segue to Pastrana's follow-on assignment in Colombia, which he began after graduating from WHINSEC in May 2021.
"I'm excited because I get to immediately apply everything I learned in school," Pastrana explained. "At WHINSEC, we focused on a lot of command and staff planning, inclusive of security cooperation. I took on the additional skill identifier of strategic planning and chose to focus those studies on Latin America. On the ground, I will support not just the SOUTHCOM's combatant commander's strategic initiatives, but also those of South Carolina's State Partnership Program in a joint service and multinational environment, and ultimately under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy's mission chief. I look forward to eventually returning home to Virginia and bringing back knowledge and experiences that will serve well wherever needed there."