By Petty Officer 1st Class Andy Kendrick
Visiting a Coast Guard boat station in Washington, D.C., you will find an extraordinary man with an extraordinary entrance into the American military. The young, Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican is marked with humble determination as he applies life’s lessons, one hurdle at a time.
Rafael Omar Gomez Negron, who generally goes by Gomez, joined the Coast Guard after college, speaking very little English.
As he went off to boot camp, two Category 5 hurricanes threatened his Caribbean island, causing billions in damage and requiring months of recovery work just to restore power.
He endured many trials, fearing the health of his family while enduring military basic training as a non-native English speaker. He overwhelmingly conquered fear, sadness, separation and communication to reunite with his wife and become an integral member of a Coast Guard station in the nation’s capital. His journey wouldn’t surprise those who know him.
This is his story.
Growing Up in Puerto Rico
As a four-year old, Gomez’s teachers complained to his mother about difficulty with him and wanted doctors to give him medicine for his hyperactivity. His mother knew better, she knew he needed an outlet, a way to use all his energy. She enrolled him in soccer, to which he credits developing discipline.
The boy’s natural desire to run fast and play hard turned out to be the fabric of his accomplishments. His coaches guided his energy and focused his talents, while his teachers benefitted from the youngster operating under a newfound sense of self-control.
Gomez went on to succeed in a residential, sports-focused high school. He started in soccer and then switched to track after the soccer program was canceled. There was something very specific he gained in track and field that became something of a mantra, the determination to achieve that with which he puts his mind.
“In that sport, you have to say, ‘Hey, I want to do this time,’ but you have to be focused and determined to [achieve] that [goal] time, because it’s not going to be easy,” Gomez said.
“The sport [gave] me that determination to finish what I want to do. I put [something in my mind] and I do not rest until I get it.”
In addition to being an honor graduate, which he told his mom he decided to be, his feet followed speed and focused determination into a full college track scholarship, where he gained a bachelor’s degree in criminology, following his old man’s footsteps in law enforcement.
His father was a policeman in Puerto Rico, but suggested he take a different route.
On the Path to Becoming a Coastguardsmen
Gomez’s response to his father’s counsel was to get a degree and join the military.
Since the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, is in English, it can be more difficult for islanders to score high, potentially limiting which branch they can join.
As a hyperactive young lad on an warm Caribbean island, Gomez was an active swimmer and was even a lifeguard for work. This led him to initially look at the Navy as an option, not knowing anything about the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard sounded interesting once he learned more about it, so he did a little research and found the missions resonated with him.
“The other branch[es], they focus on war and we focus more on safety,” Gomez said. “I like [to] save lives more than kill lives. That is the reason the Coast Guard grabbed me.”
After finishing college, Gomez was concerned about his inability to speak English fluently and didn’t immediately join the military.
After graduation, he visited his sister in Wisconsin in the summer and got a job at a waterpark as a lifeguard, which didn’t require much English. After two months, the thought of staying there instead of joining the military became unbearable.
“I [will] go [home] to Puerto Rico and I am going to take the ASVAB and I am going to join the military and that’s it,” Gomez remembers telling his mother.
“The next week I [had] the ASVAB. I pass[ed] the ASVAB with 68,” Gomez said. “They were like, ‘hey, you have a good score.’”
Gomez was excited about the real possibility of joining the Coast Guard, which had the most stringent ASVAB requirement. All the Coast Guard recruiters in Puerto Rico were from the island and they all spoke Spanish, making it really easy for Gomez to sign up and get advice.
They told him that he would be all right with the amount of English he spoke.
Heading to Boot Camp
Gomez waited for the earliest date to leave, counted down the days and shipped off to boot camp, leaving his wife, Ashley, and parents for a short time, with plans to unite with them upon graduation.
There was one problem though: he didn’t really speak fluent English upon landing at boot camp’s front door.
He expected to be yelled at and for boot camp to be physically hard, but he didn’t realize how hard it would be, not understanding why he was being yelled at and being unable to perform all of the tasks required of him on the spot, minute by minute, second by second.
“Mom, I want to quit,” Seaman Recruit Gomez recalled telling his mother in letters.
“It’s not difficult, like all the things we have to do; it’s too difficult because I do not understand.”
His apparent disobedience forced him into a probation status with the company commanders.
Gomez took it personally and felt that he might get reverted, a way of holding back recruits to give them more time to get things in order, or process them out. His mother encouraged him and reminded him that he finishes what he says he will and Gomez refocused his efforts.
“I am not going to quit. If I do not make it, it is because they take me out,” Gomez told himself.
Having English as a second language in boot camp didn’t end up being the only thing to threaten his resolve.
A little more than halfway through the eight-week course, his company commanders called him aside. He knew for sure that he was in trouble and was about to get reverted. The recruit had prepared for this day and had already told his mother and wife that they might have to reschedule flights to be reunited at his graduation, if he made it.
Hurricane Irma, Boot Camp Graduation and a New Coastguardsmen
Instead, a company commander told him that a hurricane was headed to Puerto Rico and he needed to call his family immediately. Ashley should have been safe, living up in the mountains on the leeward side of the island, but his mother lived close to the coast near San Juan. Hurricane Irma was headed for her.
He called his mother and she assured him that she had taken all the necessary precautions and that she would be okay.
He wouldn’t be going home to see his family or get his car, clothes, or any other things after boot camp. All flights to the island were closed.
[After boot camp graduation], as all the other recruits spent time catching up with family and taking photos together, company commanders instructed Gomez to gather his things for immediate departure to his new duty station, a small-boat station on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. All he had to wear were the uniforms he was issued and the set of warm weather clothes he wore to boot camp.
The first thing he asked about when he got to the new unit, was where he could go to take English classes. Both active duty service members and auxiliarists at the unit helped [him] seek out opportunities.
“We looked at resources from every angle. Auxiliary, auxiliary translators, like I said, Coast Guard support, Rosetta Stone for the ESO program…Military One Source,” said Lt. Brian Miller, the commanding officer of Station Washington.
“And finally he found the program he’s going to now.”
Hurricane Maria Hits Puerto Rico
Just a couple weeks after Hurricane Irma, when Gomez finished boot camp, another storm, Hurricane Maria, threatened the island with what would later be recognized as the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. His mom’s life was at risk, as well as his wife’s and his homeland was threatened.
There would be no quick way to know if they survived.
While working through language barriers and trying to get qualified as a search-and-rescue communications radio watchstander, Gomez was also calling his mother and wife multiple times a day to try to find out if they were okay. First, he made contact with his mom. Days after the storm, she was able to borrow power to charge her cell phone from a business with a generator.
Gomez said they were fortunate that they didn’t lose more. They lost some of the roof and some water came in, but other people lost everything. His mother and aunt were okay, though their arms hurt from spending hours manually holding the panes of glass on the window shut, to keep wind and water from blowing the slated windows open through the hardest part of the storm. She didn’t immediately have contact with anyone else, but heard from his father a few days later and confirmed that he was okay. His parents lived in San Juan and his wife lived more than an hour away.
There was no way to get there or confirm if she was okay.
It was about 10 days later, when he finally received a call from a peculiar number that he didn’t recognize – it was Ashley. The first thing Gomez recalled her saying was, “Get me out of here! I don’t want to be here anymore! This is crazy.”
Ashley and her family had access to overpriced water and packaged food for the time being, but they weren’t sure how long it would last. The mosquitos were horrible and the crime continued to increase.
Gomez reached out to a mentor at the unit, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Matos, to help figure out how his wife could get off the island, now about three months since his departure for boot camp.
Working Hard…and then Harder
During that time, Gomez had made steady progress through the communications watch qualification process and was ready for his board – an oral test to check his ability to perform the required actions and possess the required knowledge.
“He could understand the policies, the requirements — but being able to communicate on a radio was pretty rough,” Miller said.
“Communication standards say that you have to be clear and concise and brief. The clear part was the struggle. So, we decided not to certify him based on the words he was saying were not clear to the receiver.”
Miller said they set him up with a plan and moved him to begin boat crew qualification, which would help him understand some of the things people say when they are boating, so he could come back and get qualified on the radio later.
“He was here on his off-time, staying behind, working with anyone he could — the auxiliary, me, all the other non-rates — and just taking it home and studying,” Matos said.
“He definitely isn’t someone who gives up on things.”
Ashley finally arrived in Washington and Gomez was reunited with his other half. Their on-base housing was worked out and he met a Spanish-speaking woman from the Dominican Republic at the exchange, who helped him find an English Second Language (ESL) course through a school she had used upon her arrival to the area, almost 20 years prior.
Gomez and Ashley started taking the ESL classes together for four nights a week at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in D.C., named after its founder, a Puerto Rican looking to help other Latinos.
Ashley now had an opportunity to get out and meet people and they both grew in their language mastery. Gomez said they now only speak English at home to hasten the transition.
“He’s working so hard on it. He’s just relentless about working on his language skills,” Miller said.
“And if you talk to him today you might say, ‘geez, you don’t need to work on your language skills, you sound great.’ And that’s because he’s been working so hard. He’s not going to stop working until he perfects it, I think.
“I think he’s even going to apply for OCS one day,” Miller said in reference to Gomez’s future, going through Officer Candidate School.
“His limit in the Coast Guard is commandant — and that’s only because it’s the highest you can go.”
-This story originally appeared on Compass, the Coast Guard’s official blog. It has been edited for style, grammar and accuracy.