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“The American Experience: Carlos Tigreros”

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“The concept of home was complicated. I was born in Chicago, but my childhood was in the South American country of Colombia. Due to the violence and political instability that took hold of Colombian society in the early 1990s, my family immigrated back to the United States in search of a better life. I returned to Chicago with all the culture shock of not only confronting a language barrier but the multitude of challenges assimilating to a new culture. Despite those challenges, a successful integration did take place in which we were able to intertwine our lives in the fabric of the American experience. My family’s story is living proof that the American Dream is still very much alive as I began my life in the political volatility that was Colombia, to the rough ghettos of Chicago, into military service, and currently in the Ivy League at Dartmouth.”

Describe to me the moment you decided to join the military. Who or what led you to that decision? 

“It wasn’t a moment but more of a series of events that accumulated over the course of my life that inspired me to join the U.S. Navy. What is certain is that the idea of military service in my life was something that existed in me since childhood. It was at the age of twelve that I began to gravitate towards history as my preferred academic topic. This preference allowed me the ability to understand the lives of great figures like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Harry Truman, George HW Bush, and Colin Powell. These individuals commanded not only a respect for their political and diplomatic achievements, but they had a special aura to them due to their military service – a unique sense of ownership to their country forged by the fires of combat that was their military experience. I was able to get a better sense of what that aura represented with the help of a mentor and an important father figure. His name was Master Chief Petty Officer Gregory Smith – my NJROTC instructor for all four years of high school. His aura, like those historical figures I mentioned earlier, is one that gave them an edge over everyone else. These were Americans that went on a great adventure; they went on to pursue an experience so difficult that most people avoided it. These were Americans, that not only spoke about the values and ideas that represent America, but these were men that transformed ideas and values through tangible sacrifice, action, and service. I wanted to join this elite circle of U.S. citizens, I didn’t want to just be a scholarly man of ideas in old libraries surrounded by books, but a man that practices his ideas through action, sacrifice, and service. At the same time, as a grateful immigrant, I wanted to give back to my country. I wanted to serve as an ambassador to prove to myself and those around me that immigrants like me can not only partake in the American experience, but we are capable of contributing in the fight, in order to defend, and serve our country. Military service was a platform to live out the phrase, “E Pluribus Unum,” which means “Out of many, one”. Despite the socio-economic and cultural differences of the millions in the U.S. Armed Services, we all wear the military uniform, a perfect example of what a unified and diversified American military force can accomplish.”

What was your job in the Navy? What type of training did you have to undergo to be certified for that position?

“I was an electrical engineer in the first portion of my military career onboard the USS Emory S. Land. I later went on to work in the Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Program. As a Nuclear Repair Engineer, I was able to spend a significant amount of time repairing various nuclear-powered submarines while onboard the USS Frank Cable. It was quite the leap from one field to the next. I was working at Merrill Lynch in the Financial Wealth Management Division and jumped over to the Navy’s Engineering Program. The leap was an exhaustive experience. The training required countless hours to understand the science behind the job, but I was fortunate to have subject matter experts provide exceptional hands-on practice in conducting our responsibilities in a safe and efficient manner.”

What was your most memorable experience in uniform?

“My first deployment provided me with a front row seat of all the rewards and challenges of sea life. The ship not only represented a place to work but for the first time in my life, I bonded with a ship. It was home and the only refuge in the open oceans as we confronted extreme weather in a hostile maritime environment. My first port visit was Subic Bay, Philippines. My time in this country represented the first instance that I was able to implement an entire year worth of training into a real-world military mission. That mission focused on being part of a repair team that sought to strengthen the Philippine Navy’s maritime capabilities. We provided engineering solutions and various upgrades to the Philippine flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The work we were able to achieve made that ship mission ready in various security patrols across the South China Sea in partnership with U.S. Naval assets. It marked a pivotal moment in life in which I felt I was part of something bigger than myself.”

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When you hear the term “leader” who is the first person that comes to mind? 

“One of the greatest privileges I have had in the military was the ability to closely work with some incredible leaders. Master Chief Petty Officer Daniel Curley truly embodied the highest examples of servant leadership. He was the Leading Chief Petty Officer of a Nuclear Repair Division. My time in this division was also by far the most arduous and hazardous tour of duty. It was very common for our division to work 16 to 18 hour days for weeks on end. Despite those challenges, Master Chief Curley was always the type of leader that did not spend his time in the office. He was constantly at the front of any engineering repair project supporting his teams. No matter how stressed he was, he never lost his enthusiasm. I remember my first major nuclear repair project, the pace of our operational tempo was grueling. With a chaotic work schedule, Master Chief Curley still found the time to take a vested concern and interest in the well-being of his sailors. I was taken aback by his ability to maintain a perfect balance between servant and autocratic leadership style, a combination that inspired not only a strong sense of loyalty from his crew but a strong willingness to go above and beyond the point of exhaustion to complete his orders.”

Who are some of the sailors you worked with that had an impact on your service?

“I was able to convince a number of my sailors to begin their academic careers by taking advantage of Tuition Assistance. One sailor, in particular, had an incredible amount of enthusiasm in starting off his initial classes. His name was Daniel Casteneda. A great amount of professional satisfaction was felt as I helped dozens of sailors navigate the process of Tuition Assistance. In that process, I did not anticipate in becoming an academic mentor to those sailors. I remember training Daniel on various strategies and skill sets to succeed as a student that proved effective during my undergraduate career. Being able to play a role in the development of the critical thinking skills of my sailors was a distinct privilege for me.”

Who are some of your heroes?

“My admiration for Abraham Lincoln continues to grow the more I learn about his life. Despite his personal tragedies and failures in business and political endeavors, he persevered and went on to do great things in life. Reading through his biography is a healthy reminder that our struggles are not exclusive experiences of our own and that countless of individuals who we deem as extraordinary confronted the exact struggles we currently face. Life will throw all sorts of surprises and setback at you no matter how talented you are. Lincoln had a remarkable ability to compartmentalize his internal and external struggles, or in other words to isolate and focus on difficult issues separately. A remarkable skill set for any professional.”

What taste, touch, or smell symbolizes the military to you?

“I spent a significant amount of time repairing Fast-Attack and Ballistic Missile Submarines. Once in port, submarines will transfer their power source from the nuclear reactor over to electric diesel generators. The scent of diesel exhaust combined with the ocean salt and seaweed in the midst of the growling generators was always the mixed aroma that marked the beginning and the end of an exhaustive repair project.”

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How has your Navy service changed you?

“It has certainly provided me with a newfound appreciation for the small things in life. I thought I would have an idea of what I would be losing and sacrificing once in military service, but the weight of that price is never fully realized until you’re in. My five years overseas provide me with a front-line understanding of the various ways the United States is able to promote peace, prosperity, and democracy abroad with the help of strategic partnerships and alliances. At the same time, five years of overseas military duty can also provide one with a unique understanding of failed states, civil unrest, and the challenges of troubled regions. My return to the United States provided me with a deep appreciation and respect for the rights and liberties we have in this country, liberties that many in the world are in desperate search for. My military service has advanced my aspirations to continue a second career in public service. This grand American experiment in democracy is not a perfect project, but it is certainly an endeavor that I hope to serve and defend once more.”

What is your current position as a civilian and how did the military prepare you for that?

“I’m currently a graduate student at Dartmouth College, examining the intersection between U.S. national security and Chinese relations. Dartmouth is a special academic community; it is not just a College but a place we call home. One of the things that I am most grateful for about my time in the U.S. Navy is the ability to push my limits no matter how daunting the challenge may seem. This skill set translated pretty well to the academic intensity and unforeseen challenges that came in making the leap from the U.S. Navy over to Dartmouth.”

 

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