LAKEWOOD RANCH — Edward Valdez could recite the slogan from the television commercials, but at boot camp two years after enlisting as a U.S. Marine, he could not understand commands.
“I moved slow,” Valdez said. “I would watch people and follow.”
At the beginning, his parents, natives of Los Mina, in the Dominican Republic, could not understand why Valdez was even there.
Now, a little more than a year after retiring from a 20-year career in the Marines, Valdez, a Lakewood Ranch resident, and his parents, understand.
“I truly, truly have the utmost love and admiration for this nation,” Valdez said.
When Veterans Day comes Nov. 11, Valdez will stand in front of his son's class at The Tabernacle Christian School and tell his story.
He is not the stereotypical face of the American veteran. His face is young, his body is lean and able. Valdez has an accent and unmistakable Brooklyn swagger.
He attained the rank of master sergeant, but he never served in combat. Instead, he did whatever his commanders asked of him: cooked meals, screened new Marines, handled insurance contracts and helped keep peace in Bosnia and Somalia.
But, as he tries to regain footing in the civilian world, Valdez’s story is one of a American veteran.
Valdez left Los Mina, where he was born and raised, to join his parents in Brooklyn at 14 years old.
Life in America wasn’t idyllic, but the family made it home. His mother made strings for guitars in a Brooklyn factory, and his father, a former business owner in the Dominican, worked odd jobs.
Valdez recalls the day in high school when an older classmate came back to town during a break from the Marines. At the time, Valdez had only seen the Marines’ commercials and had thought little about serving his new country.
“But seeing him left an image in my head that didn’t go away,” Valdez said.
Valdez enlisted in the Marines in 1991, one year after graduating high school.
“I just wanted to get out of New York,” Valdez said. “It was something to do. I wanted to explore.”
Boot camp started in February 1992. No one judged Valdez when he couldn’t comprehend the commands; other enlistees had the same problem. They just followed the ones who knew.
Valdez said he enjoyed his time in the military and the people he met. But now he faces a new challenge: building a life as a civilian.
After having every moment scheduled and dictated in the military, Valdez said it can be difficult for veterans to adapt to the less-structured world outside it.
Some veterans withdraw when confronted with the differences of civilian life. Valdez embraces them.
“Veterans tend to be reclusive,” Valdez said. “People immediately want to know what happened, who did you kill, what is your story? And it brings back that memory you want to escape. So they step back.”
As Valdez, 41, shares his story from the industrial office of DieMond Tool Grinding, where Peter McKane, the company’s owner and friend from church, tutors him on how to sharpen tools, he admits he is different — more talkative and comfortable than many of his counterparts.
For one, Valdez serves as an usher at Faith Life Church in Sarasota, where he met McKane. He also attends classes at University South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to obtain a degree in psychology.
Valdez and his wife, Jade, whom he met in between tours, found Lakewood Ranch while looking for a church in Tampa, where Jade’s family lives.
Valdez said his transition has been smooth because his service gave him a work ethic he uses today.
“I have tools available to me,” Valdez said. “If I don’t feel right, I go to the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs). I am constantly encountering people.”
And that’s what Valdez works hardest at: building new relationships and friendships, whether that’s at church, school or through membership in veterans groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Wounded Warriors and American Legion.
Valdez, an American citizen, said he respects the history of the U.S. military, and is proud to represent the United States.
“I was born and raised a Dominican and came up on that culture,” Valdez said. “I made a commitment to the United States of America.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected]