From exile to freedom

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Andrea A. S. Williamson
  • 108th Wing

When asked about Hispanic Heritage Month and what heritage meant to him, Cuban-American, Tech. Sgt. Eric Suarez, of the 108th Maintenance Squadron, said, “the food, the pictures—all brings about memories, that’s huge for me.”

This is because Suarez’s life of freedom in America, began with the exile of his grandfathers from Cuba not so long ago, said Suarez.

As a former Cuban United Nations representative, during the early reign of communist Fidel Castro, Suarez said, his maternal grandfather, Mario Fernandez, stood on his beliefs despite the consequences.

At an assembly held in New York, his grandfather criticized the Cuban government, Suarez said. Shortly thereafter, the communist regime found out.

With only letters at that time to communicate, Suarez’s grandmother back in Cuba, sent her husband a letter to warn him as to what trouble he would face upon his return, said Suarez. But the letter did not reach him in time.

When Suarez’s grandfather arrived home, he was met by officials who took him into custody for interrogation, but ultimately gave him one option: take your family and leave the country.

With only 24 hours to pack up the only life he ever knew, Suarez’s family left for New York.

Despite leading a different life as a farmer—under the same government—Suarez’s paternal grandfather, would suffer a similar fate.

“My grandfather, Jose, wanted a better life for his family,” said Suarez, “so he was willing to do whatever it took.”

Suarez’s grandfather sought work in the U.S., Suarez said. Though the Cuban government allowed this, the conditions were that he could work in the fields and do whatever was needed for 3-5 years with no support from the Cuban nation and limited visits home.

“While away, communist government officials would make random visits to my grandmother’s home in Cuba to search the house,” said Suarez. “They would steal and break things just to assert their authority.”

The actions of Suarez’s paternal grandfather were eventually seen as betrayal to Cuba, once again, forcing his family to leave their home.

“On my grandfather’s 40th birthday they said, ‘you have to get your family and leave the country or we are going to come after you,’” said Suarez. “He left behind his mother, father, and six siblings in a moment’s notice.”

While their circumstances were grim, Suarez’s outlook on those family memories is a positive one.

“I’m here and I’m grateful for it,” said Suarez. “That’s why I say, ‘wearing my family’s name on this uniform and serving in the Air National Guard is an honor.”

Now a family man himself, the non-destructive inspection Non-Commisioned Officer in Charge, continues to uphold the values, passion, and work ethic that his late grandfathers instilled in him and it shows, according to acting equipment section supervisor, Senior Master Sgt. Jacob Vankampen.

“I have a very bright troop that runs my NDI shop and I think he would be a great person to do a little story on,” said Vankampen, of the 108th Maintenance Squadron.

As an inspector, Suarez ensures the structural integrity of the KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft by examining, testing and recording each part’s functionality.

“I went to my first airshow at McGuire and on my father’s shoulders as a little kid, a thunderbird flew from behind us and I was sold,” said Suarez, “I knew what I wanted to be.” So with his mother’s blessing, at age 21, he joined the military.

“I love what I do,” said Suarez. “Aside from flying, I was interested in anything that allowed me to interact with aircrafts.”

No matter the level of sacrifice or responsibility, Suarez said, his grandfathers’ resiliency is what motivates him to this day.

“My [maternal] grandfather would always say, ‘Palante, palante,’ which means, move forward,” said Suarez, who himself, uses this mantra “whenever things get tough.”

Moving forward, Suarez plans to share his family history, culture and best memories with his son.

“I don’t know if my son will take to the military like I did,” said Suarez. “But I’m going to take him to the airshows. It might spark something in him. It’s kind of a family tradition.”