Economics junior Tomas Enrique Pirela remembers being held at gunpoint during a trip to his hometown in Venezuela. In a country where almost one-third of residents are living in poverty, the gunman was desperate for money to pay for his child’s diapers.
“My country isn’t a very advanced one, there is a lot of poverty all around,” Pirela said. “I’ve been robbed twice. Poverty [is] what leads people to stealing from others in order to feed their children.”
Pirela moved to Katy, Texas, when he was 10 years old because of his father’s job and the poor living conditions of his home country.
“Venezuela is just a country that I was born in and my family lives in,” Pirela said. “Katy, Texas, is where it feels like home.”
After starting middle school in Katy, Pirela said he had trouble communicating at first because he did not speak English. After graduating high school, he joined the Marine Corps, in part to avoid the burden of college student loans.
After three challenging months at boot camp, he started in the infantry and later became a cook for the Marines in Virginia.
“[Boot camp] is a huge shock because you are broken down from a regular everyday person to nothing, and then rebuilt in the Marines,” Pirela said.
Following a tsunami in 2011, Pirela was deployed to Japan to help injured survivors and clean up debris.
“I felt I was making a difference in people’s life, in addition to doing my job as a military service member,” Pirela said.
After Japan, Pirela was deployed to Afghanistan, where he stayed on an aircraft carrier to support the ground troops.
Pirela, who left the Marine Corps in 2014 to start his college career, said his experiences turned his life upside down, giving him opportunities he couldn’t even dream of if he was still back in Venezuela.
“Coming to the United States has been the best thing that ever happened to me,” Pirela said. “It gave me a chance to get out of a dangerous place and have an opportunity to do something wonderful with my life. I’m also very happy that I have been able to give something back by serving in the U.S. military, so I could show my appreciation for all that the country gave me.”