Life is full of surprises and will take you places you never dreamed.
I grew up in the southwest side of the island of Puerto Rico. A quiet coastal town with beautiful beaches and excellent seafood, and I mean excellent seafood. Needless to say I spent a lot of time at the beach. Even during non-summer months as Puerto Rico’s weather is beach weather almost year round. Those were the good old days and one has to grow up.
One thing I learned at an early age is that if you work hard good things will happen to you. My hard work through high school paid off, as I was accepted to attend University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez Campus. This was like going to Harvard here in The States. I was on cloud nine, living the dream, but it was a dream that would be short lived. My world came crashing down on May 9, 1991. I was at the end of my second year of college when I got some devastating news. My mom and my brother died in a car crash just outside Fort Irwin, California. This was a life-changing moment and that’s when I decided to move to Orlando Florida to start anew.
It was a lot of struggle at the beginning, but again with hard work and determination, I managed to start over. I could say that I did it alone, but that would not be true. I owe a lot to Rose (my wife now) and her family. Without their support I probably wouldn’t be here today. After a few years things started to go our way. I managed to work my way up to senior store manager at Burger King and Rose was working at “The Happiest Place on Earth,” Walt Disney World. In June 1995 we welcomed our first son, Melvin Jr. His birth made me the happiest man on earth and Rose was elated, but this was not without a challenge. To our surprise, Jr. had Down Syndrome, but that didn’t matter to us. We were happy that he was ours and we embraced everything that came along, and it was a lot…
It is true what people say, “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” The fast food business was just not for me anymore. I was desperately looking for change, again. In February 1998 I found myself giving a ride to one of my employees to a US Army recruiting station. I didn’t plan on it, but something told me to go inside too and I ended up listening to what the recruiter had to say. I thought to myself, “why not?” My brother did it and he never complained about it. He used to showed me all kinds of photos of amazing places he had been all over Europe. That same day I talked it over with my wife and 3 months later I was at basic training. Talk about going out on a limb. I quit my job and left my wife and son behind, hoping for the best. This was one of the hardest things I had ever done up to this point and the first of many times leaving my family behind.
On April 2, 1998 I reported to basic training. You think basic training is hard? Try going through it at 27 years old and out of shape. The training was already very physically demanding, but the drill sergeants always found a way to provide you with extra motivation. No matter the time of day or night, I was always on the front leaning rest position (push up) even when it wasn’t my fault. Needless to say, I left basic training and the advance initial training in the best shape ever. This was the beginning of a new adventure.
Life in the military can be taxing on family, especially when you have kids. My first unit was The 30th Medical Brigade in Heidelberg, Germany. I thought with a medical unit, I will be in garrison all the time, right? Boy was I wrong! I was quickly introduced to the concept of forward deployed headquarters. This meant whenever or wherever V Corps went, we went. I saw so much of Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels training areas, it was almost like my home away from home. I either went with the headquarters or provided support to our subordinate units during annual trainings or mission rehearsal exercises. I spent anywhere from 2 weeks to 45 days at a time, at least 6 times a year.
Everyone knows exactly where they were on September 11, 2001, I remember it vividly. I was working that day from 0930 – 1900 and I had just come home for a late lunch when Rose rushed me over to the TV. At first I thought it was a movie or something else, but as I looked closer I realized it was real. I watched in shock and total disbelief at what was going on in New York and later at the Pentagon. I just could not comprehend what was happening. So many feelings rushed to my head, but one thing was clear…this was an act of WAR! Where were you?
In 2002 my son Sebastian was born at the Heidelberg military hospital. Another great moment in my life, everything seemed to be going our way. My next two assignments didn’t involve much field time, but I did travel to a few interesting places. As the travel NCO for the US. Army Europe Deputy Commanding General and later to the Command Sergeants Major I had the opportunity to travel all over Europe, the Balkans, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and several trips to the national capital region. I had the opportunity to fly in four different military airplanes and two different configurations of UH-60 helicopters. I was having the best time of my life, professionally and with my family as well. We really took advantage of three and four day weekends…that’s when we did most of our travel across Europe.
In December 2004 everything came to a screeching halt yet again. While vacationing in Garmisch, Germany we had to take Melvin Jr. to a local hospital. There we were advised to follow up with his primary care physician back in Heidelberg due to his high concentration of white blood cells. Upon our return home we confirmed what the German doctors had initially hinted…Jr. had Leukemia. The news was devastating and the road ahead to recovery was long and uncertain. We were offered to come state-side, but the locations offered were nowhere near any family support, which would have made it very challenging to move and start treatment at the same time in a new place. We decided to stay put in Heidelberg and Jr. started his chemotherapy treatment at the Heidelberg University Hospital. This was the best decision we ever made. Three years later, Jr. would walk out cancer free. To this day we are very grateful for the doctors and hospital staff that took care of us, not just Jr. During this time I was assigned to US Army Europe G2 where I provided IT support to numerous counter-intelligence exercises. Where you might ask? Where else but back in Grafewoehr. I just could not get away from this place.
In 2008 we returned state-side and I was assigned to US Army South in San Antonio. This assignment was short lived. Within a year I found myself in Fort Riley, Kansas training for a deployment in a Military Transition Team (MiTT) as the communications chief. We were a self-sufficient 12 man Team. I was a one stop shop for anything and everything related to network, radio and satellite communications for the team. A very challenging assignment, but one that would prove to be the most rewarding experience. Before my tour was over, I asked to be sent back to San Antonio but that was not possible. I came back from deployment and moved my family to the National Capital Region where I was assigned to the Joint Staff, J6.
Being assigned to the Joint Staff and working at the Pentagon was very exciting. I had toured the Pentagon back in 1989 when I came to DC as part of the Presidential Classroom to learn about the US Government, which included attending a session of Congress, visiting many federal government facilities, and a tour of all the major monuments and museums. When I first met my wife I told her about the experience and that one day I would bring her to DC. Well I didn’t break that promise. I did one better, I brought her to live in the area.
The assignment to the Pentagon was challenging, but rewarding as well. I led the GO/Flag Officer remote access program for the Joint Staff, J6. I was responsible for the installation of remote access kits at government quarters as well as private residences throughout the NCR providing SIPRNet access for data and voice. But the biggest project I worked was the complete renovation of the Chairman’s quarters at Fort Myer where we rewired the entire house to accommodate a major upgrade to the house communications suite and the office space for his staff. We installed a state-of-the-art video tele-conference suite with access to NIPRNet, SIPRNet and JWICS. We also coordinated the installation of the “bat phone,” a direct line to the President of the United States.
While at the Joint Staff I also helped stand up the J6 Cyber Security Division, specifically revamped the Data Transfer Officer program, shaped the Cyber Security in-processing brief for newcomers, stood up and managed the eMASS instance for the Joint Staff and COCOMs, and led the Independent Validation and Verification Team who provided direct input to the Certifying Authority before a recommendation was sent to the Designated Accrediting Authority Representative or Designated Accrediting Authority for a decision. I also worked closely with the vulnerability management team, incident response team and became a backup PKI Registration Authority. Like I said before, challenging but rewarding experience.
I was coming to the end of my time at Joint Staff, but I did not wanted to leave the NCR, so I decided to apply to White House Communications Agency (WHCA) and in February 2015 I started my assignment as the Network Architecture Branch NCOIC. There I had the pleasure of working with a great team of professionals (military and civilian contractors) which made my job a lot easier. Under my tenure I did numerous network upgrades throughout the NCR, to include installation of Wi-Fi at the White House, Eisenhower Executive Office Building, New Executive Office Building, and many others. We were also responsible for the upgrade of Wi-Fi onboard Air Force One and providing backend support to Network Support Technicians deployed all over the world supporting President, Vice-President and First Lady of the United States travel. When I was not in the office I was out on travel as the Assistant Presidential Communications Officer and Vice-President Communications Officer, responsible for all onsite communications aspects for the President and Vice-President of the United States and their staff. The time I spent at WHCA started to wear out on me and the family and that’s when I decided it was time to retire.
I spent 20 years serving our country, and that is something I’m extremely proud of, and to this day I think it was the best decision I made for my family and for myself. What I have experienced over the years has been nothing short of extraordinary and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. As a matter of fact if I could do it all over, I would have joined sooner and maybe just maybe I would have become a helicopter pilot.
In April 2018 while I was still in terminal leave I joined the ESITA contract, but I was working for a sub-company. The job I was hired to do was just not me and three months later I was ready to go. I put in my two weeks notice and was ready to take an Information Systems Security Manager position supporting the Air Force…I was ready to go. Elizabeth Stern was my first line supervisor at the time and she said to me, what about if you join Invictus? What would you like to do? Maybe there is something we can do for you. I had seen how Invictus employees talked about the company and how great the management team was. The whole thing piqued my interest, especially after learning how much Jim Kelly cared about his employees…and I have to be honest, the whole Spartan thing was very appealing. So I told Elizabeth what I wanted to do and how much the other company offered. That same day I talked with April Aird, and received a matching offer the next day. As they say, the rest is history.
I’ve been working for Invictus for 32 months now and I truly believe this is the best decision I’ve made after leaving the military. Jim and everyone at headquarters made me feel welcome from the very beginning. I quickly realized that Invictus was more than just a job, and now I was part of the Unconquered family, a “Spartan.” Throughout the years of service, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a great team led by Chris Harper and Tracy Smith. I told Jim one day, “I constantly get bombarded with offers from other companies, but honestly, the only reason I’ve stayed with Invictus is because of you. The way you run the company and your commitment to your employees is second to none. You don’t see us as employees but as extended family members.” That is something extremely hard to find, especially when you work for big companies.
Life is full of surprises, with many highs and lows, and sometimes you are handed a bad hand. I know, I’ve been handed a few bad ones. The important thing is what you do after; do you raise to meet the challenge and overcome it or do you crumble under the pressure? I’ve been fortunate enough to have my family’s support through it all. Without family we are nothing…
I can honestly say the Invictus poem really resonates with me as I truly believe I’m “the master of my fate” and the “captain of my soul,” and through it all I remain unconquered!