FORT JACKSON, S.C. - More than 40 years ago and after eight years of his parents trying, Luis Blanco and his sister, Sonia, left behind the comforts of familiarity in exchange for what some say is one of humanity's greatest gifts -- the power of choice.

For years, the Blanco family lived year-by-year under a Cuban dictatorship that rationed their lives. From two pairs of shoes a year to a limited food supply, the family of four was told how and where to live their lives.

Fast forward to 2009, Command Sgt. Maj. Luis Blanco is now the senior enlisted Soldier for the 81st Regional Support Command, based here.

As the senior enlisted advisor for Maj. Gen. Bill Gerety, Blanco said he remembers the tough times growing up in a communist-led country, but still cherishes his Hispanic heritage.

One of the most difficult times for Blanco and his sister was how little they really had as children.

"In Cuba, just about everything was rationed," Blanco said. "Once you received your allowance it was marked in your ration book and we couldn't get anything more until the next year."

In September 1968, the Blanco family's lives changed forever.

As the government seized all personal belongings - to include their sole source for milk - a family goat, they left behind extended family members, friends and a way of life for a new dream - a new way of life.

"I was lucky that my immediate family was allowed to leave together," he said about the Cuban refugee policy at the time.

Classified as Cuban refugees, the Blanco family carried their lives in one small carry-on bag for the nearly 90-mile journey to Florida.

"We didn't even know how to say 'yes' or 'no' in English," he said.

As they arrived at the refugee center in Miami, the young 13-year-old Blanco saw something he only heard whispers about in Havana - Chicklets, a small, popular flavored gum.

Given $20 for a taxi to reach the airport by the refugee center staff, Blanco convinced his father to use 25 cents to buy the pack of gum.

"I put about four pieces of the gum in my mouth, started chewing and waited to see if something would happen," he said.

After arriving in New York and reunited with other family members, Blanco said the upcoming years were very difficult.

The language barrier, different customs and a big city like New York was a bit intimidating for the young Blanco after coming from a small-island country like Cuba.

"I have always been grateful to this country for letting us who were persecuted by a dictator and communist government, settle in a place of freedom," he said.

Blanco joined the U.S. Army as a private in 1977 as a helicopter missile system repairer and after seven years of active duty he joined the Army Reserve.

He served in Germany and deployed to Iraq where he was embedded with the Iraqi Army.

"I consider it a privilege to serve this great nation that opened its arms and welcomed immigrants from all over the world," he said.

Blanco said that America celebrates and recognizes all heritages to help make us better people and a better society.

One thing Blanco said he misses most about Cuba is the tight-knit family values and traditions. "Every Sunday we would visit my paternal and maternal grandmothers."

As a young child growing up with warm weather, Blanco said he missed playing baseball all year around. "At one point in my life I wanted to be a professional baseball player," he said.

Those dreams of playing in Yankee Stadium slowly faded away and the Army changed his life forever.
"Being an American is important to me because of the freedom and liberty that we all enjoy," he said.

In 1985, Blanco did something for the first time - vote.

"One of the things that I cherish the most is the ability to vote without fear of retaliation," he said. "Since I became a citizen and eligible to vote, I have not missed one election. It gives me the feeling that I am part of the process, whether the candidate wins or loses, I'm a contributor to the process of democracy."

Whether Blanco is providing mentorship to noncommissioned officers or volunteering in his local community, he always takes pride in where he comes from and where his future lies.