While many of his countrymen are proud their nation has no military, Tico Gabriel Solano went elsewhere seeking one.
Solano, now 35 and a dual citizen of Costa Rica and the United States, served three tours of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. A heavy equipment operator, he built bridges, barracks and heliports in Barbados in 2002, and served in Kuwait and Iraq during two tours of duty in the on-going war in Iraq.
The veteran, who was invited to speak at a Republicans Abroad lunch Tuesday in San José, said it was his childhood dream to become a soldier.
“Since I was 8, I developed a strong interest in the U.S. Army, and at the time I didn’t know all the different branches,” he said.
His dream was on hold from 1988 to 1996 while he worked here as a National Police reserve in Costa Rica, specializing in search-and-rescue operations.
In late 1996, he began working for the U.S. Embassy, providing security for Methodist missionaries. There, he met Randall Spencer, a missionary from Pensacola, Florida, who later adopted him as a father figure and helped him move to the U.S. “Spencer was the reason I was able to pursue my dream,” he said.
Within years of his arrival in the U.S. on a tourist visa, he married a U.S. woman, which led to his U.S. residency, thereby making him eligible to enter the military. The couple later separated.
While in the military, he received U.S. citizenship.
Solano has since left his days in Iraq behind, although he keeps in touch with friends still there.
One memory in particular, he said, will stay with him forever.
“One of the worst things I saw … was when we were clearing munitions from towns and schools,” he said in an interview with The Tico Times, his voice choking.
“There was maybe a 5- or 6-year-old boy, and he had a mortar shell in his hand. He was trying to bring it to us because he knew what we were doing and he wanted to help.
We were screaming at him not to move, but he didn’t understand. But he tripped and fell and the shell went off, killing him.”
Solano who achieved the rank of sergent, also said he wasn’t completely in favor of the war in Iraq.
“I wasn’t there because I support that we’re there but I do support my brothers (in the military),” he said. “I agree with the fight against terrorism but I’m not sure that’s the reason we’re in Iraq. But I just follow orders.”
He currently lives with his second wife, a Tica, in San José and works for Hewlett– Packard.