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Family’s escape from conflict in El Salvador set stage for Soldier’s life in Army

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Sgt. 1st Class Miriam Lemus said she often thinks how fortunate she is to be a Soldier and an American.

Life could have been a lot different for her, possibly in a bad way, she said, had her parents not decided to come to the United States from El Salvador, a tiny Central American nation in the grips of a civil war during the 1970s.

Lemus, who is now the operations and training noncommissioned officer at the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, explained how her parents arrived in the States.

Her paternal grandfather, who worked for the Salvadoran government, was assassinated by anti-government terrorists in the mid-1970s, she said. His distraught widow, Lemus’ grandmother, took immediate action to protect her family. She traveled to the U.S. with her brother and her own children, including Lemus’ father.

At the time, there were a lot of kidnappings of boys and men, who were being forced to join the rebel forces, she said. The only way out of the violence and abductions was to flee the country.

Her maternal grandparents also escaped to the States. At the time, they were divorced, she said, adding that even so, her grandmother helped her grandfather to escape, along with their children, including her own mother.

Once in America, the two sides of the family settled down in Los Angeles, where her mother and father met, married and had children, including Lemus, who is now 34.

LEARNING ENGLISH

Lemus was born in the U.S. and grew up bilingual, although she did not speak the language until attending an all-English preschool in Los Angeles.

“When I got there, everyone spoke in English. I was really confused,” she said. “I had to learn English quickly, but being so young, I was like a little sponge soaking it up.”

She mastered the language so well that she says she can express herself better in English than in Spanish.

Lemus’ father picked up English as well, taking night courses. Her mom, who also took English classes, never really acquired the language, she said. Mom still only communicates in Spanish.

In basic training, Lemus said she struggled with writing letters to her mom in Spanish since she never learned to read or write Spanish, only speak it. To remedy her deficiency, she took Spanish courses in college.

LEARNING ABOUT CUISINE

Learning English wasn’t Lemus’ only hurdle.

She also had to become accustomed to eating more traditional American food, since she had grown up on Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles.

After arriving at basic training, she said her first meal was pork chops.

“I’m like, ‘What’s that? I’m not going to eat that,’” she said.

Even though she got used to eating American food, Lemus said she still salivates thinking about Salvadoran food, especially banana leaf-wrapped tamales and pupusas.

ENJOYING ARMY LIFE

During her senior year in high school, Lemus said she discussed with her parents plans to attend college and how to pay for it. Since the family wasn’t wealthy, her idea was to work part time and attend school part time.

The thought of joining the Army never occurred to her until later when she was asked to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery while in high school. A recruiter mentioned the education benefits and that sealed the deal.

In 2000, at the age of 17, Lemus joined the Army. The first in her family to join the U.S. military, she said her younger brother, Pedro, later joined the Navy.

Although she initially joined the Army for
the college benefits, she took a liking to it and decided to stay.

“It’s not only because I enjoy the Army way of life,” she said, “it’s also my way of giving back to my country.”

The Army has also provided Lemus the opportunity to travel, meet people from a range of cultural backgrounds, and pursue her education. Before joining the Army, she said she had never met a Cuban, Dominican or Puerto Rican. Those interactions have opened her eyes to the richness of her own Hispanic heritage.

Lemus said she is grateful to her parents for choosing to immigrate to the United States and giving her a multicultural background.

“People are curious about my last name and where I came from. They mostly think I’m Mexican,” she said. “I welcome the question because it gives me a chance to tell my story, a story I’m proud and happy to share with everyone.” n