By Fredda Sacharow for Rutgers TodayNov. 28 will mark Juan Hernandez’s first Thanksgiving home after three years of active military duty with the U.S. Air Force, and he can practically taste his Mexican-born mother’s signature chicken tamales.
During his service abroad, the Rutgers student helped in the mission to bring American Foreign Service workers home from Benghazi after the deadly 2012 attack on their compound. He took part in humanitarian projects in Africa, dropping water bottles in Mali and Ethiopia to ensure residents had safe drinking water at hand. He trained forces in Ghana.
Now Hernandez is anticipating a series of firsts in the coming months: first birthday home after lengthy postings in Spain, Germany and Africa; first Christmas and New Year’s out of the military; and even today, his first Veterans Day as a veteran.
In his first semester at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR), where he’s majoring in both human resource management and labor studies, Hernandez says thoughts of home and family were never far from his mind throughout his years overseas.
For a good chunk of that time, Hernandez was deployed with the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), which protects and defends national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states. The posting took him to 14 countries in six months, including Senegal and Cameroon.
“The reality check of being in a third-world country was stark,” says the veteran, who joined the military in 2009 when he was 21 and just out of Union County College. “Even the simple task of looking for clean water becomes an ordeal.”
Perhaps his most high-profile assignment was providing security for planes ferrying a contingent of U.S. marines charged with evacuating the U.S diplomatic compound in Benghazi after a fatal attack last year. Four American Foreign Service workers died when a heavily armed group stormed the facility on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens; 10 others were injured.
The landing in Libya took the senior airman deep into hostile territory, but he says he was more focused on the task than on the danger he faced. His unit received assistance from the Libyan Army in protecting the perimeter of the embassy as the evacuation took place.
While details of the incident continue to be rehashed in Congress, Hernandez recalls with precision and focus his mission in those hectic few days. “The marines’ job was to safely bring everyone on board and get us out of there. My job was to protect that packed aircraft, no matter what,” he says.
The California native was serving in the military police at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, headquarters for U.S. air forces in Europe, when he was chosen for the task. He and his fellow rescuers weren’t told where they were going; only later would they learn that their assignment would take them from Germany to Souda Bay, Greece, where they met up with the marines, and then on to Benghazi.“I was part of the first U.S. forces to touch down,” Hernandez recalls. He and two fellow servicemen handled security, maintaining order on the aircraft while it was in the air and on the ground.
Once the group touched down in Libya, all the marines left the aircraft. “I stayed with it, providing security with my weapon to make sure no one unauthorized came in,” he says.
After the 50 marines had completed the evacuation and were back on the plane headed out of Libya, both marines and airmen shared mixed emotion, Hernandez notes. “The mood was sad that Americans had died, but we were glad to be able to get their bodies out of there, glad to help get them home,” Hernandez says.
Upon his honorable discharge from the Air Force in April, Hernandez had his heart set on a career as a police officer. But a one-week seminar sponsored by the military’s Transition Assistance Program planted the notion of going back to college, and he soon found himself crossing the threshold of Rutgers’ Veterans House on the university’s College Avenue Campus.
“I found out that Rutgers was one of the leading schools helping with veterans’ transitions,” the 2005 Plainfield High School graduate says. “Once I was accepted, they helped me do so many things, including finding a work/study program in the Veterans Office. Because of the directors at the Veterans House — Steve Abel and Robert Bright — my transition was so much easier than it might have been. Their main goal is helping vets succeed in school.”
Hernandez, who counts his younger brother Eddy among his classmates at SMLR, says one of the hardest aspects of adjusting to college life has been “switching from a military mindset to a college lifestyle. I’d been overseas my whole military career, so being back in the U.S. has been amazing.”