By Helen Rodriguez
As a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, Gerardo Pando-Rodriguez served four and a half years volunteering, including six months overseas on the USS Okinawa, six months on the USS Belleau Wood and another six months on the USS Tarawa, and the remaining years stationed at Camp Pendleton working on military helicopters, protecting the rights of United States citizens and the land he calls home.
Rodriguez began the first eight years of his life in a small abode in Chihuahua, Mexico. In the spring of 1968, the local birds came to feed on the vast fruit trees that lined the yard, and the colorful vegetable garden was abundant with what would become the night’s supper. This would be the last time Rodriguez, his three younger siblings and his mother would eat in his first childhood house.
Seemingly minor details are permanently ingrained into his memory, from the cars that his father would work on daily in his auto repair shop to the outhouse in the backyard. These childhood memories became almost unrecognizable to the now 58-year-old man and as far off as the 1,000 miles he had to travel to arrive at his new childhood home in Burbank.
A year prior, in 1967, Rodriguez’s father, Wenseslao Rodriguez, received a government job in Burbank. The same company would give him a caseworker who would eventually be responsible for the reunification of his family. Housed in an apartment building was their new two-bedroom, one-bathroom palace. This would be where Gerardo’s fifth sibling was born, and where he would attend public school for the first few years. Then after saving enough money, his father was able to buy a home that they would all grow up in. From there they’d take the bus to a private elementary school and later high school while Gerardo worked as a mechanic with his younger brother Edmundo.
All these events were paving their journey to becoming American.
At the end of his high school career, Gerry, the nickname he was given in America, had a nagging feeling he described as a “need to give back.”
Trying to find his words, he says, eyes swelling, it was a need “to give back to the country… that gave me and my family the opportunity to be here and better our lives.”
Witnessing my father choke on these words, seeing his tear ducts being overcome, was not a common sight. As prideful and hard-headed as he is, there is a soft center to Gerry Rodriguez not many can see. He felt sincerely indebted to this country and wanted a chance to show his appreciation. Rodriguez found that opportunity in the Marine Corps.
He paced the halls of the San Fernando Recruiting Office, knowing nothing about the U.S. military system, thinking, “The Army guy was blah, the Navy guy had his shirt untucked just like the Air Force guy, so no, I want to be dressed taking pride in the uniform.” He left his family behind, with only a day’s warning. “I didn’t want them to try and stop me. Your Grandma is still bitter about it,” he said, chuckling.
That day in January 1981, Gerardo Pando-Rodriguez swore his life and left to become a U.S. Marine. He was ecstatic. Enduring a three-month-long boot camp where he would spend his 19th birthday, passing tests with flying colors, he was able to choose his job as an aircraft mechanic and ended up being attached to HMA (helicopter Marine attack) squadron 169 at Camp Pendleton.
On April 17, 1981, he marched the Marine Corps Recruit Depot parade deck, officially becoming a United States Marine. Post-graduation, he was offered the position as a mechanic in HMX1, the squadron that flies Marine One, the presidential security helicopter that follows Air Force One. However, the last question asked in his job interview was, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” He replied, “No.”
From there, he observed his application being pushed into what he called the “round filing cabinet,” the wastebasket. Valued and recognized for his outstanding participation and hard work as a young Marine, he found that there is an even higher value placed on being a citizen.
After being able to bear arms and fight for rights a citizen holds, Rodriguez received a pat on the back and the green card that he held in the front fold of his wallet. This did not stop him from pursuing the Marine Corps by signing a contract to serve the next four and a half years.
With an eye roll, he admits, “I understand the part I played in not receiving full citizenship. It was so much paperwork asking me where I had been. They knew where I had been. They sent me there.” Regardless of citizenship, he was proud to call the United States of America home.
On Feb. 20, 2019, Gerardo Rodriguez presented himself in an about-face in front of thousands, being recognized for his service and commitment to his country as he was granted his United States citizenship.
It only took 50 years.
Helen Rodriguez is a Santa Clarita resident.