FORT LEE, Va. (June 11, 2015) -- Growing up with running water, electricity and shoes is usually a given in the United States; but for many places around the world, that’s not true.
While his house in Antigua had electricity some of the time, Sgt. Maj. Dave Francis, the Kenner Army Health Clinic sergeant major, said if his family wanted water when they lived on the island in the West Indies, it was up to him and his siblings to collect it.
“There was no running water, but there was a public pipe that had a spigot you could use to fill a bucket,” he said. “We lived on a tropical island, and there would be periods of time when there wasn’t a lot of rain. Because of that, the water pressure would drop. When things were good, we would go 200-500 meters from our house to get water. But in the days and months when water was a little scarce, you would have to go miles to get water.
“Because we had the 55 gallon drums, we would take Friday afternoon and keep making trips until we filled the drum up so everyone would have access to it,” he said. “You would do that on the weekends so you wouldn’t have to do it when you were going to school during the week.”
Another thing Francis did without was shoes.
“Most of us didn’t have shoes back then,” he said. “When my parents started having a bit more money – my mom was a seamstress and my dad was a heavy equipment operator – they would have more money to buy shoes. But because everybody else wasn’t wearing shoes, I used to hide my shoes because I felt bad wearing them. People would pick on you for wearing them and say ‘look at you. Your feet are so soft.’”
While growing up, Francis said America was portrayed as the land of opportunity, and he remembered his family first working on becoming permanent residents when he was 13.
“I told myself it would be great to move over there and have these opportunities that have been so graphically described to me by parents or other family members,” he said. “During my teenage years, I was really looking forward to it. Once I got to 20, and I was already working, I really wasn’t that enthusiastic about it. But my girlfriend – who is now my wife, Blondell – moved to the U.S. and because of that, I was more interested.”
After graduating from Antigua’s secondary school, Francis was able to work as a primary school teacher until he received a scholarship to a university. A few weeks after his girlfriend moved to the U.S., Francis’ family finally received the notifications of their interviews to work on their resident status. Francis returned to Antigua to finish his college course after the process, and eventually joined his family in the Virgin Islands on Aug. 14, 1989.
“I got to the Virgin Islands in August, and in September, there was Hurricane Hugo,” said Francis. “The hurricane basically destroyed the majority of the homes on the island. There was no power. The island was totally devastated.
“At the time, my brother wanted to join the Air Force, but somehow he got connected to an Army recruiter and when the recruiter came by to administer the test, he said ‘Hey Dave, since you’re here, why don’t you take the practice test as well,’” he continued.
Francis took the exam and did well, and the recruiter told him he could have any job he wanted, but didn’t tell him that permanent residents were limited in their job options. After taking the official test, Francis decided to come into the Army as a 13 Bravo – Field Artillery.
“When my recruiter showed me the video of field artillery, he showed the guys riding around in tanks and blowing up stuff,” he said. “I thought that would great. I would get money for college and I’d have fun.”
After living on a tropical island for his entire life, Francis said it was a shock when he went to basic training and experienced cold weather at Fort Sill, Okla., in February.
“I left from the Virgin Islands where it was 80 degrees and T-shirt-and-shorts weather,” he said. “I went to Fort Sill and it was raining and I thought ‘are these people crazy?’ because it felt like icicles were hitting my head.
“They were telling us not to move because we were in formation and I wondered if I made the right decision,” Francis continued. “That’s when I had one of those moments and I thought to myself that I was going to get through it. I kept telling myself when I got out, I would go to college because I would have this extra money and I wouldn’t have to depend on my parents. That was my motivation to talk myself through the initial feeling it was crazy and I wouldn’t survive it.”
Francis made it through his basic training and his first assignment at Fort Drum, N.Y. He said his initial plans were to get out of the military after three years.
“I wanted to come in, do my job and get out, but in artillery, that’s not the case,” he said. “They told me how many correspondence courses I would take and sent me to extra schools like air assault. They don’t give you an option. After you’ve been doing these things, it dawned on me that I was a Soldier, and I was really making a difference.
“I realized I could be a Soldier and still achieve those goals I wanted like getting my bachelor’s and master’s degree,” Francis continued. “Once I realized that, I had a conversation with my wife about reenlistment. I told her if I did that first reenlistment, I would go the full 20, and asked if she would go along with that. So I changed my job, and did my 20 years. I was blessed to become a sergeant major during that time.”
With more than 25 years in the Army, Francis attributes his military success to good NCOs for making him believe in himself. Now, he’s the NCO who takes time to encourage other Soldiers to work hard for their dreams.
“Every opportunity I get to talk to Soldiers – whether they are from a different country or right here in the United States – I try to push information about the Army on them,” he said. “We make the decision to join the Army and then sometimes we get disillusioned because it’s not what we expected. You need that person who is going to be there to encourage you and let you know that ‘this may not be exactly what you expect, but you can make a lot out of it.’”
Francis became a naturalized citizen in 1993 before his first enlistment. He said the idea that America is the “land of opportunity” he heard so much growing up is absolutely true.
“I have been in America for almost 26 years, and in that time, I have been so many places, done so many things and interacted with so many great people,” he said. “If I was still in Antigua, I may own a house. Families are so close-knit that it’s not uncommon for mom and dad to be living in a house and son or daughter gets married and lives in the same house with mom or dad. Maybe, I’d own property of my own. But here in America, I own property.
“I was able to go to school and get my bachelor’s degree and my master's degree,” Francis continued. “On top of that, I’ve been able to serve in the U.S. Army and progress like anyone else. No one else said ‘you’re an American citizen, but you’re originally from Antigua, so we are only going to promote you so far.’ To me, that’s the big difference between America and most other countries. You can come here and as long as you embrace the principles and statutes that America is founded on, the possibilities are endless.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on naturalized citizens.