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From Just Cause to Iraqi Freedom - Marine reflects on first encounter with Marines in Panama

2 Nov 2004 | Lance Cpl. Miguel A. Carrasco Jr.

A 15-year-old Panamanian boy watched Marines patrol through his poor town of Santigo, Panama, Dec. 20, 1989, in support of Operation Just Cause.

Nearly 15 years later, Cpl. Heriberto Calles, a scout with Company A, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion currently attached to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, peers through the glass of a light armored vehicle, searching for possible anti-Iraqi forces.

With a smile on his face, Calles remembers when he was a boy and the Marines gave the locals in Panama needed supplies.

"They were very polite and gave food to the children. Then I remember them walking back into the woods with camouflage paint," said Calles, 30. "These Marines didn't know who we were and they still helped us out."

During grade school, he told his classmates about his plans to go to the United States to become a Marine.

"They all thought it would be impossible, but that didn't stop me," said Calles.

Calles, knew the challenge before him and remained determined to finish his goal.

"There were times when I felt like giving up. I wouldn't even have enough money to catch a bus to go to school," said Calles. "But the support of my family and friends inspired me to continue my dream of becoming a Marine."

Balancing a job and schoolwork as young adult, Calles attended Panama University. He earned a bachelor's degree in music while playing in a band as a tenor saxophone to help pay the bills. During his last year at the university he got a scholarship from the Panama Canal College to learn English.

Calles soon received a visa to come to the United States. Calles boarded a plane to New York Dec. 18, 1999, two days before his birthday.

"All my friends and family were there to see me leave and to wish me good luck," said Calles. "I had to wait to receive a citizenship, so I worked for almost two years at a cleaners so I could pay my rent," said Calles.

After obtaining U.S. residency, Calles met with a Marine Corps recruiter and enlisted. Before taking off for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Calles had to obtain a green card. It took him only two weeks to get it and he was on his way to the yellow footprints.

"It took me 13 years to get to where I wanted to be," said Calles. "Thirteen years to finally become a Marine."

Calles' journey in the Marine Corps has taken him even further from home. From Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., he was deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Here, he has seen the Iraqi children out in the towns and remembers the feeling he once had as a boy.

"I know that one day these kids will grow up and say that they want to be a Marine," said Calles.