JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. –
When Leonardo Trinidad was born in San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico, his family didn’t expect him to become a seasoned U.S. Soldier with two wartime deployments and retirement eligibility by the age of 40.
Yet, as they watched from afar from the family’s mountainous hometown in Caimito, San Juan, they saw a young man who had the talent to delicately balance his military duties with his family life as a husband, a son, and the father of four boys.
Sgt. 1st Class Trinidad currently works in Training & Operations for the G3 at the U.S. Army Reserve’s 99th Readiness Division, overseeing the division’s Tactical Drivers Training Course here.
“My focus in my section is individual training; also as a master driver, so I teach people how to operate their equipment safely and correctly,” said Trinidad. “I enjoy it so far; if not, I wouldn’t be doing this 20 years later.”
As Trinidad grew up, his mother Celina worked many part-time jobs. He went to church with her about three to four times a week, plus on Sundays.
“Our services have a start time, but don’t have a finish time. It was, ‘let’s see how we feel,’ that kind of thing,” he said. “‘There’s a big baseball game coming up, we’re gonna make this short,’ or sometimes it was, ‘you know what? I feel like I need to give you guys more message.’”
Celina completed her doctorate in Theology and worked for a non-profit Catholic organization. Trinidad also worked with them around age 13 or 14.
“I understood how the computers worked because, in the mid-90s, they had very little classes on how to get used to computers,” he noted. “Computers weren’t used very much at the time. I still remember getting solid paperbacks and hardcover books for my classes. There was no Google.”
It was around this time that Trinidad met his wife, Raquel, to whom he has been married for nearly 20 years.
“My wife has been there from the very beginning,” he said. “We met in high school and she was with me when I first enlisted, and she’s still with me.”
Trinidad enlisted in the military in 2003.
“I wanted a career change,” he explained. “My main idea was to get into the military and go to college, doing both, having that experience. I never had an opportunity to go away. We were not a family that got on an airplane and could go on vacation somewhere else.
“When I was growing up, nobody else in my family was in the service – I was the first one,” he continued. “Then, my sister’s husband joined the Air Force in active duty around the same time.”
Trinidad could already speak English well when he entered basic training.
“English was one of my better classes in high school. When I took English, I got an ‘A’ in the class all through high school. When I took Spanish, I got a ‘B+.’ It sounds like a joke, but I never got an ‘A’ in Spanish,” laughed Trinidad.
“When I came to Fort Jackson, about 15 percent of my class at basic training was Hispanic, and we had two drill sergeants who were Hispanic,” explained Trinidad. “There were some barriers in what people said, some slang and what they meant, the way that people talk. So, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Trinidad had come into a place where people had different accents from all over the country.
“I knew that there was going to be a lot of people who speak English with different accents from wherever they come from in the U.S.,” he said. “So, I had to really listen to what they had to say. The accents were very tough for me and if you hear me, I do have an accent, but there were other Hispanic people with more pronounced accents than mine. So, I guess that taught me to pay a little more attention on listening more and speaking a little less.”
There’s also a common misconception in the U.S. that Puerto Rico is a separate country, while it is an actual U.S. territory, which means Puerto Rico's 3.2 million residents are U.S. citizens.
“The thing is (in the U.S. military), you have to change your whole perspective from how you grew up, because you’re away from your family,” said Trinidad. “If you’re from Puerto Rico, there’s a whole plan of traveling back and forth. You may not be able to go as often as you want to because traveling is expensive, especially if you travel with your kids overseas.”
Trinidad explained that he can never forget where he’s from as he settles into life in the U.S.
“If you see somebody from Puerto Rico and you hear the music and you see what they eat or you can smell what they had for lunch, and you’re like, ‘Hey, wait a second!’ you can feel that they came from the same place you came from,” he said.
“When I moved to the States, it was the crickets at night – over the summer, I couldn’t sleep for a week. The crickets have to keep quiet in Puerto Rico, because we have little frogs – if the crickets talk, the frogs say, ‘I’m going to eat them now,’” said Trinidad. “The rain, the music, even the little frogs – that’s how I grew up. I grew up with the little frog noise.”
On his first deployment, his whole unit was from Puerto Rico when his battalion deployed to Kuwait for about 16 months from 2003 to 2005.
“We were doing a lot of missions and construction inside Kuwait for the Army and Joint Forces,” Trinidad said.
He also deployed during 2008-2009 with a sustainment brigade to Iraq for six months. “I was able to go back home to attend the birth of one of my sons,” he said.
Trinidad adapts to his surroundings as he’s determined and resilient in the military, while bringing grace and commitment to his family. When it comes to adjusting the dials of life, he has managed to successfully fine-tune them both.
“My mother looks at it like, ‘Do you like your job? Do you like what you do? Are you happy with your job?’” he explained. “She would probably prefer that I be in another type of career, but this is the career I choose. She eventually got used to it after a while - probably after the first ten years.”
Trinidad has a bachelor’s degree in psychology (with applied behavioral analysis) and cited that he studied psychology to understand his children a little better because they have special needs. At the same time, he pointed out that while he knows how to apply therapy and provide behavioral analysis, he cannot be his own children’s therapist.
“Although, of course, it does help around the house, especially the older kids who have their opinions - and they express them,” he said.
Trinidad said he can attribute his patience in life to what he learned from his mother.
“I learned from her about trying to listen to people and to be not as reactive to things. To be proactive in things, to calmly assess the things that are happening, because freaking out about something will not make the situation better,” he said. “Problem solving with people, I noticed that she had a lot of that with people, so I can take that away from her. Of course, the Army teaches that during the years, but there’s things that you know you learn as you grow up like problem solving and being polite.
“When I’m in uniform at work or the commissary, people tell me, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and I go ahead and tell them, ‘Thank you for your support,’” he said. “The job is very fulfilling. Most of my career was at brigade level and below, so I was able to work with Soldiers directly. Whenever it’s my turn to train Soldiers directly, hands-on and in front of me, I do take a lot of pride in that because it’s just one of the parts of the job as a sergeant that I know that I’m teaching somebody something and they’re actually grasping that information and taking it with them and sharing it.”
Trinidad said he gets satisfaction when he sees a Soldier achieve a little more in the Army, knowing some of it was from his help. He explained that he has seen sergeants that he mentored who have grown as Soldiers, moved up in the ranks using more of their capabilities with more responsibility.
“It makes me really happy for the Soldier, and although they did it all and it’s their accomplishment, I feel pride that I was able to assist them,” he said. “It’s fulfilling that they’re using those lessons and progressing.”
Trinidad continues developing as he will soon venture into Warrant Officer School in April 2024 while transitioning into a civilian Army position.
“My wife Raquel understands that this is my job and she doesn’t like it sometimes, but she supports me anyway,” he explained. “She’s the one who actually pushed me to put in my warrant officer packet because I was talking about it too much. I put the packet in three times and I got rejected on the first two. So, we didn’t know if I wanted to take that rejection again.
“I do this job and she’s the one that drives me to get up and continue doing the best that I can, so that I’m doing this job right,” he added.
“The lessons that I have learned in 20 years have made me a little better,” Trinidad explained. “In the beginning, I was always just thinking about the job; and now, in the last five years, I’ve realized that it’s not just the job that I’m doing, that it’s not just me, it’s the family that’s supporting me that helps me accomplish this job a little better – that gives me the drive to wake up the next day and do it better - not just for me, but for them.”