MCRD PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. --
A shivering 11-year-old boy looked back across the Rio Grande, transfixed in horror. He thought it odd that the human traffickers made everyone take off their clothes and ordered the men and children to swim across first. As he looked back, he understood why. The descending darkness was not enough to hide the sight of the women being raped on the opposite shore during that cold night in 1987.
This was simply the latest atrocity that young Jose Luis Montalvan had witnessed. Montalvan recalled one especially violent day after the revolution in Nicaragua began. His parents owned a popular restaurant frequented by members of rival political factions. It was a neutral ground until one group launched a ruthless surprise attack to gain control of the neighborhood.
As gunmen indiscriminately opened fire on the restaurant, Montalvan’s father loaded him, his mother and younger brother into the back of a car. His mother shielded him and his brother as they sped away under a hail of bullets.
The revolution, which followed decades of conflict, forced his mother to ask herself agonizing questions that led to a painful realization. She would have to let him go. She arranged for him to flee to the safety and opportunity of the United States, and he embarked on a perilous journey that would eventually lead to a career in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In 1987, before his 12th birthday, when he would have been conscribed into the Nicaraguan military, he set out with one of his uncles for Hialeah, Florida. Together, they covered over 2,000 miles on a month-long journey through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. In Hialeah, Montalvan met up with his aunt and her husband, who would raise him for the rest of his childhood.
But first, Montalvan and his uncle met the human traffickers who promised passage across the Rio Grande that cold night in 1987.
When Montalvan arrived there, he noticed that the water was freezing. Although he had never learned to swim, he grabbed a rubber tube, a bag containing his clothes, and jumped in with everyone else. As he came ashore in Brownsville, Texas, he shuddered at the scene taking place on the opposite shore and he wondered why his family had raised more than $10,000 to expose him to these horrors, which seemed absurd and incomprehensible.
“I had made it, but I wasn’t happy then,” said Montalvan. “At the time, I was confused and upset because I didn’t understand why my mom made me go through all of that, and basically gave me away to family members who I did not know.”
During the last leg of his journey to Florida, another obstacle arose.
“We were at the airport waiting to board our flight to Miami when I saw my uncle talking to a man even though he had been told not to talk to anyone at the airport,” said Montalvan. “He was telling him everything we had done to get the U.S.
“The man turned out to be an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent. We ended up getting detained, but thanks to my family in Hialeah, who paid our bond and requested our asylum case to be transferred to the Miami INS office, we were released and were able to take a flight to Miami. ”
Montalvan spent the next years of his life being raised in Florida by his aunt and uncle. As time passed, he grew to love them and even refers to them as “mom” and “dad” today.
Despite their support, Montalvan struggled to transition to a new country and culture. Throughout his school years, he was quiet, fearing ridicule for his accent and rudimentary grasp of English. He gravitated toward fellow immigrant students rather than immersing himself in his new environment. After graduating from Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, Montalvan attended Miami-Dade Community College and worked two jobs. Eventually, he sensed a need for a change.
“I knew if I stayed in South Florida, I wouldn’t achieve what I wanted to,” said Montalvan. “If I stayed around the same people, I felt that I would never learn English correctly since we would revert back to speaking Spanish all the time. In addition, I knew it would limit my education and job opportunities. I also wanted to travel and see the world. That’s when I thought of the Marine Corps as the solution.”
Montalvan’s aunt opposed his plan to enlist in the Marine Corps, so he had to be clever. He waited for her to take a week-long vacation to Costa Rica in September 1995. While she was away, his Permanent Resident Card was approved, and he immediately coordinated with the local Hialeah Marine recruiter to enlist. Within a few days, he passed the required mental and the physical tests for enlistment and entered the U.S. Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program before his aunt’s return. His projected ship date to Marine Corps Recruit Training was set for January 1996.
As Montalvan predicted, his aunt was furious and refused to speak with him. The tense home atmosphere was heightened by his anticipation of beginning the next chapter of life. Thus, Montalvan sought the opportunity to leave early for recruit training. Fortunately, his recruiter called him in October to ship out early, and without hesitation, he accepted the offer.
“I received the call on a Friday night and I was shipping to recruit training three days later,” said Montalvan.
With his ship date imminent, Montalvan’s aunt finally broke her silence.
“She said in Spanish, ‘Si te vas no regreses derotado,’ which translates to, ‘If you go, do not come back defeated,’” said Montalvan. “I understood that if I fail, I better not come back, and I’ve used that mentality ever since.”
In recruit training, Montalvan continued to struggle with the language barrier, but he performed well academically and athletically. He was able to run three miles in less than 18 minutes, which would earn him a perfect score on this phase of the physical fitness test. During a sparring match, Montalvan punched out a fellow recruit, knocking him down and leaving the recruit with a broken nose. Additionally, Montalvan loved and excelled in close order drill. His drill instructors took notice and appointed him a squad leader and later the guide, which is the primary recruit leadership position in a platoon.
“I was really proud when I graduated recruit training,” said Montalvan. “It was a special moment for me, as I became the first one in my family to serve in the Marines. The most important people in my family were there when I graduated, and I’ll never forget that moment.”
As proud as Montalvan was of being a Marine, he was unsatisfied. When he initially visited his recruiter, he learned about the officer program and expressed interest in it, but the recruiter told him that he would never qualify. Montalvan never forgot the exchange, continued to think about the option of becoming an officer, and used the recruiter’s doubt to fuel his aspirations.
“Six months after graduating from recruit training, I was a unit diary clerk in Okinawa, Japan, when I saw orders for a sergeant who had been accepted to the Naval Academy,” said Montalvan, who was a private first class at the time. “That’s when I found out that enlisted Marines could transition to become officers. I spoke to my roommate, Pfc. Shorter, about my interest in the officer program, and his reply was simple and direct: ‘I would follow you as an officer!’”
Increased financial stability was an initial draw to the program for Montalvan; however, since becoming a Marine, the reasons have multiplied.
“After the conversation with my roommate, I realized my influence could reach far beyond helping my family in Florida financially,” said Montalvan. “Becoming an officer would allow me to lead, mentor, and coach Marines. I wanted to have a positive impact and help others actualize a path to their full potential.”
At the time, only corporals and above were able to submit for the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program and Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training Program. Montalvan, who did not meet the minimum rank requirement, proceeded to collect all the necessary documents. He updated his record after every physical training test, award, educational achievement, and promotion.
“I had a lot of help from my peers, staff noncommissioned officers and officers,” said Montalvan. “A few years later, when I finally submitted the BOOST Program package, I knew I had done everything I could, and when the MARADMIN, the common abbreviation for Marine Administrative Message, finally came out, I was excited.”
In 1999, Montalvan was selected to the BOOST Program. The 10-month program, since discontinued, sent Marines to Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island to take college preparatory courses. Montalvan completed the program in 2000 and was subsequently selected for MECEP, which he began at Tallahassee Community College in Florida since it had a cross-town agreement with Florida State University and was less expensive.
“I wanted to go to FSU, but I also knew the cost,” said Montalvan. “I completed two years of community college in one year. During the summer semesters, for two six-week periods, I took four classes. I went to school from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. Afterward, I earned the remaining required credits for an associate in arts.”
The following year, Montalvan attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, and transferred to FSU, but he didn’t get to celebrate for long.
“When I was attending FSU, 9/11 took place,” said Montalvan. “I was coming out of an international law school class when I saw everyone gathering at the student center, and then I saw the news. At that point, I decided to take more classes so I could get back to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF).”
The U.S. Global War on Terrorism was now looming. Montalvan, like many Americans, felt compelled to protect his country no matter the cost. Thus, he enrolled in more classes to graduate earlier than initially planned.
Academically, everything was going as planned, but his citizenship remained an obstacle. In May 2002, Montalvan learned that his fingerprint documentation, a requirement for his citizenship application, had expired. The expiration had the potential to delay his naturalization process for several months and prevent him from commissioning as a second lieutenant.
Montalvan anxiously began calling the Miami INS help desk, and after numerous failed attempts, a former military officer with INS answered and expedited the process. He helped Montalvan resubmit his fingerprints and scheduled his screening and citizenship test. As soon as Montalvan passed, the INS officer ushered him directly to a judge who administered his oath of citizenship, eliminating months of waiting time.
“Without his help, I would have been ordered to return to the FMF and would not have been commissioned,” said Montalvan.
After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Montalvan finished his last semester at FSU and graduated in 2002, earning a bachelor of science in criminology.
“On Aug. 2, 2002, I celebrated my commissioning with all my friends and family,” said Montalvan. “On Aug. 3, 2002, I became the first one in the family to graduate from college. When I came from Nicaragua in 1987, no one thought I would graduate from college. No one thought I would become a Marine Corps officer, so I was excited because it was a special moment for my family and me.”
Montalvan frequently speaks to his Marines about setting goals and striving to better themselves. He focuses on what he believes has assisted him throughout his life.
“There are three things I believe you need to be successful,” said Montalvan. “First, define your goals and go after them. Second, never be discouraged by failure, and third, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“You cannot do it alone. When you fall, you will need someone to help you up. You will make mistakes, but if you learn from them and strive to do better, everything will work out.
“There is not a single day that goes by that I do not think about the many people whom have helped me throughout my life. Without their support and encouragement I would have not made it this far!”
While Montalvan developed professionally, he started a family. Alongside him today are his wife, Kerrie, and their two children, Ethan and Ean.
“They encourage and support my endeavors, but Kerrie also keeps me grounded and helps me to focus on what is in front of me,” Montalvan added. “Balancing my professional and personal life is a challenge, but with my family’s support, I feel that I can accomplish anything in life.”
Montalvan, once a young immigrant in search of a brighter future, currently serves as the 6th Marine Corps District recruiting operations officer. Now in his second recruiting tour, he dedicates his time to helping the next generation of young men and women who seek the title of Marine. He oversees all aspects of Marine Corps recruiting in the Southeastern U.S. so the select few qualified individuals have the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
After nearly 25 years of service, Montalvan, now a lieutenant colonel, has managed to climb both the enlisted and officer ranks. He has traveled to over 20 countries, including a combat deployment, and been recognized with numerous personal awards. He has fully immersed himself in the American experience and achieved conventional success in the United States while retaining his unique cultural identity. His distinct Hispanic accent is an echo of his origin. It reminds him to continue to challenge himself to achieve his goals, even when it’s uncomfortable. His life illustrates a quote from former President Ronald Reagan, who was in office when Montalvan embarked on his journey to achieve the American dream.
“Our nation is a nation of immigrants,” said President Reagan. “More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”