Brian Garcia doesn’t mind being labeled an Army brat. He doesn’t mind that he had to switch schools every year until recently, and he’s adapted to his dad serving in Afghanistan.
It seems the only difficulty he’s had moving around the country has been climate. “I’m still not used to the cold, and I’ve lived here almost four years now,” the New York resident proclaims.
Born in Puerto Rico, Garcia came to the U.S. mainland at a young age when his father was assigned to a base in Texas. The family later moved to Oklahoma and then to Fort Drum, N.Y., about 26 miles from the Canadian border.
“In Puerto Rico, I was really talkative,” Garcia remembers. “I talked to everyone. I didn’t care who they were or how they looked. When I came to the United States, I tried doing that, but I didn’t speak English. I became really shy. But I was determined to learn English and learn as much as I possibly could so I could talk to more people.”
His eyes shine with enthusiasm when recalling the places he’s lived and the people he’s met.
“My entire family, except for one uncle, lives in Puerto Rico. The only people to ever leave the island were my [immediate] family and my uncle’s family.
“When I was born, my parents needed more money. My parents couldn’t finish college. They weren’t wealthy,” he explains, and at the time Puerto Rico was suffering an economic crisis. “So my dad joined the Army. He left for Georgia for six months, came back and served for several years in Puerto Rico before we were assigned to Fort Hood, Texas.”
The young boy learned English by sitting outside of his house and listening to people as they walked by. Then his parents enrolled him in a bilingual school where the main priority was to teach all required subjects and a second language at the same time.
“My classes were literally half Spanish, half English,” Garcia says.
“I never repeated at a school in Texas. I always had a different school each year, because bilingual schools within the district would change.”
Later, with his family moving, Garcia had to start classes in a new place every year until high school. The SkillsUSA member now attends Charles H. Bohlen Technical Center in Watertown, N.Y.
A respect for education and service
Garcia’s father, Benjamin, a warrant officer, served in the Gulf War and did a tour in Korea. After being deployed to Afghanistan, he was due to come back to Fort Drum last September for a brief break. But although Garcia had not seen his father for more than six months, they decided another opportunity was too big to pass up. SkillsUSA’s Washington Leadership Training Institute was being held the same week.
“I’m a big history guy. Washington, D.C., is full of history. I like politics, I don’t know why,” Garcia says with a shrug. “Washington, D.C., is full of politics. My dad was fine with me attending. He’s big on education, too.” Fortunately, his father returned home in December until his next deployment.
Garcia’s respect for his father is so solid you can hear it in his voice. Does he worry about him serving in Afghanistan? Of course, but his dad helps to quell his fears.
“He’s actually one of the few people who will tell me something and I’ll believe him. I don’t care how that sounds. If he tells me, I will believe him,” he repeats.
His father has explained that the news media doesn’t always give the full picture.
“In news reports, what you see happening are the bad things. You are always going to see the bad things, but it’s not all like that,” the student says. The American soldiers serving in Afghanistan “are trained extremely well. They have extremely good gear. I miss my dad, but I’m used to it.”
Garcia’s parents have instilled in him the importance of education — and a devotion to service as well. A criminal justice student, Garcia hopes to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“Ever since I was 6 years old, I’ve wanted to be a lawyer,” he says. “I don’t know why. I don’t want to be a regular civilian lawyer. Instead, I’ve decided to become a JAG,” short for judge advocate general.
“I don’t know any other life than the military. I’m just so used to seeing tanks and helicopters and planes and people in BDUs,” or battle dress uniforms, he adds. “So, I’ll live both lives. I’ll be military, but I’ll also be a lawyer.”
Appreciating the differences
Garcia sees similarities between the military and SkillsUSA. “You get to meet people from all kinds of places.” The national conference, he adds, is “kind of like the good part of the military life wrapped into a week. You get to meet all these people and get to see their different attitudes toward things. I think it’s amazing. You get to learn a lot, you get to experience a lot, and it’s just a lot of fun.”
How did he get involved in SkillsUSA?
“Honestly? I was sitting in criminal justice class one day, and my teacher says, ‘Hey, someone’s going to come and pick you up for something called SkillsUSA.’
I thought that was a bad thing. I thought I scored really low on something,” Garcia chuckles. “Then, I went to the New York fall leadership conference, and I loved it.”
He’s since been elected high school president of SkillsUSA New York. When he told his grandmother, she first thought he’d be running the entire state like a governor. “My family understands that this [SkillsUSA] is going to get me ahead. My grandma thinks it’s the most amazing thing that I’m traveling so much,” he adds.
Born a U.S. citizen, Garcia says his pride in being an American is different from his pride for Puerto Rico but no less meaningful. He frequently visits family on the island, which helps him stay connected to his heritage.
“Because I have experienced what it is like to grow from poverty to how I am now, which is strikingly better, and because of my father’s serving in the Army, I have a respect for the history of this nation and how it has become one of the greatest nations on earth,” he adds.
His older brother serves in the U.S. Air Force and is no longer at home. When their dad is deployed, Garcia serves as an interpreter for his mother — who’s picked up a lot of English “but not enough to have a conversation,” he explains — and looks after his younger brother.
Staying on top of many obligations has contributed to his growth as a leader.
“I believe that a leader must be emotionally able to lead,” he says. “A leader must have character and a purpose. A leader must be able to obey and definitely be able to command.
“SkillsUSA has taught me a lot about being a leader. I’ve become a better speaker, and I have learned to motivate people. I’ve learned that a good leader knows the difference between leading and dictating.
“And, a good leader knows when it’s time to take control and make a decision,” Garcia adds. “I’ve learned that everyone requires a little help and support from others. I’ve learned that when you are a leader, you have got to have trust in people to do the right thing, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that there is always room for improvement.”
After many upheavals, it sounds like he’s found something to keep him grounded.
“I’ve had fun in places I’ve lived in — and I’ve lived in a lot of places — but nothing’s ever compared to this. There’s everything in SkillsUSA.”