CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – “I remember we would come by an Iraqi police checkpoint, and half an hour later, on our way back, [the Iraqi police] would all be dead,” said Gunnery Sgt. Pedro Aquino.
The memory of his deployment to Iraq nearly a decade ago is engrained in his mind forever. As a young boy, Aquino, now the operations chief with Headquarters Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, never thought he would be serving the country that took him and his family in during their time of need.
“In the 80s, El Salvador was in a deep civil war,” said Aquino. “My cousins, at 10 years old, were either taken by the rebels or fighting for the army. Those were the two choices.”
As the war progressed, Aquino’s mother became increasingly afraid as her son neared the age, nine, that he would be required to join the army. His father, a college student at the time, had already been forced to flee the country. The rebels did not want the people of El Salvador to be educated, and were murdering professors and students alike. Having had enough of the worry, Aquino’s mother fled the country with him and his younger brother. Aquino was only eight years old at the time.
“I came into the country illegally,” said Aquino, a Hawthorne, Calif. native. “My father was pleading for asylum and eventually got it. That is how I got my residency here.”
Aquino went to school, and when he was of age, started seeing military recruiters after making the decision to serve. It was ultimately the Marine Corps that gained his attention, and he joined immediately following his final year of high school.
“They always looked really sharp,” said Aquino. “I also heard they get all the girls, so I joined.”
Throughout his time in the Corps, Aquino has served in five combat deployments, including Operation Enduring Freedom, and two humanitarian missions.
During his 2004 tour to Iraq, Aquino fought alongside his cousin, a soldier in the El Salvadorian Army, in the battle of An Najaf. El Salvador deployed 10 battalion-sized contingents in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom starting in 2003.
“I could not believe I was fighting next to my cousin. You hear about brothers and stuff sometimes, and this was kind of like that,” commented Aquino, who also mentioned it was truly a pleasure to serve with his family.
Aquino also served with, then, Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik’s personal security detachment. Hejlik was the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at the time. It was during this time that Aquino had the haunting image of the Iraqi police engrained into his memory. When he returned from his last deployment, he was diagnosed with a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition to PTSD, Aquino had difficulty walking due to a compressed spine he developed from injuries sustained throughout his various deployments.
“I remember being in the hospital, and a representative from Wounded Warrior Battalion talked to me,” said Aquino, who was reluctant to bring attention to his symptoms for fear of ending his career. “I was pretty shocked. I used to think they only talked to people with missing limbs, but it turned out that wasn’t the case.”
Rendered unable to carry out his duties efficiently, Aquino joined the Wounded Warrior Battalion where he entered a phase of recovery.
“I was a mess,” said Aquino. “I needed the help, but what I really wanted was to get better so I could go back to full duty status and retire after 20 [years of service].”
During his time with WWB, Aquino found ways to cope with his PTSD and received the medical attention he needed for his back. Some of the things he found helpful were wood turning and photography. Aquino makes pens with the wood-turning skills he learned and says that taking photos helps him feel peace and helps him to sleep better. With the help he received at WWB, Aquino has reintegrated to an operational unit.
“It is commendable that he was able to make it back to the fleet,” said Gunnery Sgt. Joanna Mendoza, company gunnery sergeant, Headquarters Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, adding that in the face of challenges, he still inspires and motivates Marines with his invincible spirit.
Even with the challenges he still faces, Aquino wakes up and puts his uniform on every morning to serve the country he has grown to love. About a year from now, Aquino’s dream of retiring after providing 20 years of service will become a reality.