FORT LEE, VA. -- Few officers find themselves commanding the battalion where they learned their military occupational specialty as an enlisted Soldier many years ago.
Lt. Col. Denis Fajardo is one such individual. He took charge of the 244th Quartermaster Battalion on April 26. His old student company – Alpha – is where he trained to become an automated logistics specialist 26 years ago. He said he’s glad to be back to share his story, which goes way beyond the enlisted Soldier who became an officer.
The first chapter of Fajardo’s life started as a Cuban refugee coming to America during the famed Mariel Boatlift in 1980.
“My grandfather was a political prisoner,” Fajardo said. “Our family applied for political visas after President (Jimmy) Carter approved a bill that made them possible in 1980. During that time, you had to have a sponsor in America, and they were responsible for you. You couldn’t go on welfare, you had to have a job lined up, and other things like that.”
Cuban President Fidel Castro had different plans for those seeking asylum in America.
“My family paid for a boat to bring us to Florida, but it was seized by the Cuban government and they filled it to the brim with people,” Fajardo recalled. “They said, ‘if you want to leave, you’ve got to take everyone on board.’
“It was only a 30-foot vessel that would fit a family of six comfortably,” he continued. “Nearly 200 ended up on the boat, and it was standing room only. The trip of 90 miles took 24 hours because we had to go so slow to not capsize and die.”
Many memories of Cuba remain with Fajardo, who was 9 years old when he came to America. He remembers some of the kids he roughhoused with, and standing in line for hours to get bread or groceries with government issued food stamps.
“My father was in the Cuban navy, so our family was somewhat normal as far as socio-economic status,” he said. “My grandfather had been a police officer his whole life until the revolution when Castro imprisoned him for 13 years.”
After arriving in America, the Fajardo family was sent to a processing camp in Pennsylvania.
“They had a few acres of land where the government set up a perimeter with concertina wire, and there were rows of medium-sized tents where the people were housed,” he said. “We ate MRE’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were there for almost six months while the processing happened.
“I joke now that it was my first Army field experience,” Fajardo reflected. “It really was – it was just a bad one. There were tents on concrete and nothing else.”
After Pennsylvania, the family lived in Chicago near his uncle. Upon reaching the age when he could head out on his own, he found himself in Miami looking for a career.
“All I wanted to do was be a police officer,” he said. “It was tough at that time. I was in South Florida and there were a lot of Hispanics who were going for those types of jobs. It wasn’t available, so I looked for other options.”
The plan he came up with was to join the military for four years, get his veterans status and take another shot at getting into law enforcement. What he didn’t factor in was falling in love with Army life.
His initial entry included basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., AIT at Fort Lee and an assignment at Fort Hood, Texas. As a full-fledged Soldier, he was enamored by “all the awesome things” he could do, like attending Ranger School, which became his siren’s song. He achieved his officer commission after six years in the Army and opted to do an infantry branch detail.
“At the time, only those in infantry could go to ranger school,” he said. “I had worked for eight years to get where I needed to be. From the time I was a private at Fort Hood, I remember going to the 4th Infantry Division and seeing the Soldiers there. … I wanted to be in a unit like that; with that kind of discipline.”
Fajardo recalled the mentors who helped him achieve his goal. His first squad leader – Sgt. Jones – taught him the value of hard work. A company commander who made a similar transition from the enlisted ranks gave him guidance to follow the same path. They are fond memories that influence his definition of leadership.
Another chapter of Fajardo’s story begins in Ranger School where the former logistician developed a deeper understanding of what sustainment means to the Army.
“Twenty years ago, when I first had the idea of going to Ranger School, it was to earn a tab because it was pretty cool,” he said. “Now, I realize the value of my infantry branch detail is it helped me understand what the warfighter is doing and how they need to be supported. I had quite a few pivotal moments when I realized the importance of a logistician while I was infantry, and I’m able to bring that over to this side. I not only understand their mission, but it helps me picture what we need to do to support them.”
A memory enters Fajardo’s mind – one of many days in Ranger School when he was starving.
“I had eaten the one MRE we were issued for the day. I looked down and saw an ant walking away with a big crumb of pound cake. I was so hungry, I grabbed the crumb and the ant wouldn’t let go. I didn’t hesitate. I just ate it. I remember thinking it was dessert and protein.
“Then you think about someone driving down the road in a convoy, hitting a bump and a box of MREs falls off the truck, but they keep going,” Fajardo reminisced. “It’s just a box – there are 10 pallets on the truck. But a box is 12 MREs. That’s a week and a half of food for one Soldier. For me, in Ranger School, subsistency – food – was so important. I ate a crumb attached to an ant, and you’re telling me a box of MREs is no big deal? There’s someone on the other side who thinks it’s very sacred.”
Similar to the infantry experience making him a better logistician, Fajardo said his prior enlisted time has made him a better leader. To demonstrate the point, he recalled a decision he made while serving in a previous battalion leadership position. Troops in the field had been promised a hot evening meal and others suggested it would be easier to just give them an MRE and be done with the tasking.
“I said, ‘no, we need to figure out how we are going to get them hot food tonight,’” Fajardo said. “It’s an easy answer to give MREs, and it’s OK. It’s perfectly normal. But, if you haven’t been that private, you don’t realize that the hot meal is a big deal. There’s no training value in having them eat another MRE, and our reputation as caretakers of those young Soldiers was on the line. I don’t know if I would have had that answer, if I didn’t have that experience.”
Among the adornments on the battalion commander’s wall is his Basic NCO Course graduation certificate from the Quartermaster NCO Academy. He said he keeps it there so his troops realize how vital that time was.
“I still look at where I’m at today and realize there’s nothing I enjoy more than being a Soldier,” Fajardo said. “As long as the Army will have me, I’ll be here. It’s kind of ironic because I mentor people on doing other things all the time. I have great ideas for them, but I don’t want to leave.”
Appreciative of the opportunity to “get back to his roots” at the 244th Quartermaster Battalion, Farjardo said it’s a dream job to serve as the organization’s commander.
“One of the reasons I wanted this position was so I could talk to the Soldiers and share how I got here,” he said. “I want to help them see the bigger picture. We have so many opportunities for new Soldiers in today’s Army.
“An example is Airborne School, something we ask many of our students to consider from day one,” Fajardo said. “Nobody talked to me about the options when I was newly enlisted – my desire for Ranger School was sparked by a tattoo on a Soldier from Fort Hood. I have a 92-Yankee (unit supply) sergeant major and I was a 92-Alpha. We can show these Soldiers the epitome of what they can do with their Army careers – be it in the enlisted ranks or on the officer side.”