In October of 2012, I was an international college student facing deportation for failing two classes. Twenty two years old, living in my parents’ loft, aimless in academics, and frustrated in competitive Brazilian-Jiu jitsu. When the U.S. Army advertised through the LA Times that they had the need for Filipinos who spoke the Tagalog language, I felt the Uncle Sam poster of “I want you” casted over me; it was as if I was being called from the shadows, and the only way to make it disappear was to confront it. I watched HBO’s Band of Brothers, documentaries, and testimonies of military valor, and the unifying theme was that they heard “the call.” I was convinced that now I was hearing mine.
I first shared the news with my father. He had not been a part of my life when I was growing up in the Philippines. He had left our household when I was five years old when he went to work in the Arab Emirates. He only visited my mother and me twice a year, for two weeks at a time, and it was usually when I was in school, so I didn’t see him much. His visits would always begin with a little celebration that was inevitably followed by days of strict discipline. If I played too rambunctiously or showed too much curiosity, I felt the whip of his belt. Our relationship grew distant, and as I got older and learned to talk and physically fight back, he evoked emotions that made him appear to be a martyr, calling attention to how much he had sacrificed for the well-being of the family, to coerce me to stand down. Needless to say, I could not have been more excited about declaring my independence from him than I was when I told him I was enlisting.
The news made my mother nervous and agitated. She and I had started the pursuit of the American dream together. We moved to Florida when I was fourteen, and while she was busy teaching rowdy high school kids, I was pursuing the freedom to be indifferent—going as far away from my family and into mainstream American culture—only to realize it was nothing but moving away from my roots and responsibility. Moving to America as a working class family is a harsh and dreadful experience, but we eventually got it to work. However, when my father permanently joined us in the United States, the family dynamics changed. I became the third wheel in a volatile immigrant household, and my position as the reliable man in the family mattered less. The partnership that my mother and I cultivated to survive America for eight years had come to an end.
The night before the plane ride to basic training, the other recruits and I stayed in a Sheraton Hotel, where we were fed a feast of steak and pasta. As I ate, I observed the joyous faces of the guys and girls as they hugged their parents, and I saw their grinning parents, who seemed so proud of their children’s decision to join an all-volunteer military. I was happy, too—not as far as thinking that I’d achieved something, but a meaning worth giving my whole attention to. The army would be my eraser. If I worked hard enough, I would be able to scrub off my identity as an immigrant, and with it, the failures and frustrations. Then, I could write myself anew.
Gio Caballero served in the United States Army from April 2013 to April 2017 as Medical Support Sergeant. He graduated from UCSB in Spring of 2019 with a degree in Biological Sciences.