Elevated by Education: How one soldier’s journey took him all the way from Army Reserve specialist to becoming a commissioned officer

Larry Enriquez

Larry Enriquez’s reasons for joining the military were simple and pure. “I truly wanted to serve my country. I grew up in the U.S. with so much opportunity, and I wanted to give back.” Although his grandfather served in the Navy, he is the first in his immediate family to serve.

A native of Bellingham, Washington and a successful long distance runner in high school, Enriquez wanted to continue running in college. The Army Reserves allowed him to do both, and he spent his freshman year at Highline Community College in the Seattle area on the track and field team. “I Ioved it and had a blast. It gave me a chance to travel all over and compete with other teams all the way up to Division 1.”

The Army Reserves provided the tuition assistance that he needed. “Growing up, my family did not have a lot of money. I could not have gone to college without that,” he said. He acknowledged that managing school and the Reserves was challenging at times, as his annual training requirements took him out of the classroom and occasionally overseas. “But I made arrangements with my professors to take tests early and make up work, and they were always very understanding and accommodating,” he said.

His schooling was interrupted for a year when he deployed to Baghdad in 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “My unit arrived right after Baghdad fell. At the time, we had no idea how long the conflict would last. We thought we’d be going home as soon as the new government was in place, but it turned into one year. Once I was even permitted to be in the war room with intelligence information coming in, because I had a security clearance.”

Enriquez leveraged the Internet to take advantage of online coursework during his deployment. As a transportation and logistics specialist, he tracked and coordinated cargo and troops moving through the Baghdad airport, which had been converted to into a large base occupied by coalition forces. A few months after arriving in Iraq, the insurgency began periodically launching mortar and rocket rounds onto the base. After running to the bunkers for safety the first few times, he and his fellow soldiers gradually got used to their sound. He once witnessed a compound building explode close to where he was working in a nearby pallet yard. “At first I stood there in awe, but then I got right back to work,” he said.

Occasionally he would interact with local Iraqi children when his job took him through the slums of Baghdad to check on railroad cargo. “The kids thought we were super heroes with all the gear that we had, and they asked lots of questions. They were mostly little boys, anywhere from seven to nine years old,” he recalled. “We would bring them candy and we played soccer with them wearing all our gear, and they always beat us.”

Upon returning stateside, Enriquez was anxious to finish up his associate’s degree and move on to Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham to earn a bachelor’s degree in business management. “Having been deployed, I felt I had a better understanding of what was going on in Iraq than other, more opinionated students,” he said, “but I avoided getting into any arguments about it.”

Although the veteran community in Bellingham and at WWU was not large, Enriquez interacted closely with the VA office on campus that coordinated his tuition benefits, something he advises other veterans to do as well. “Take advantage of that office. They will help you,” he said.

After graduating in 2007, Enriquez headed to the warmer climate of Huntington Beach, California and joined the corporate world as a recruiter at a staffing firm. That experience quickly helped him realize that he really wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement. Knowing that landing a job in California was highly competitive, he gained experience by working at a private security firm with the goal of becoming a police officer. “I decided I wanted to be in a profession that allowed me to give back, just like I had done in the Army,” he said. “I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than myself.”

While working in private security, Enriquez began considering returning to the Army as an officer now that he’d earned his bachelor’s degree. “I talked to a recruiter and asked if he could get me into officer candidate school (OCS). It’s a very competitive process: it took me six months to put together my packet of essays, work experience, and letters of recommendation. Then I had to appear before a board and go through a series of grueling interviews, but it all worked out because I passed,” he said.

Enriquez found himself in the unique position of going through basic training again, this time at Fort Benning, Georgia. “At 32, I was the old guy among 18- and 19-year olds. But because I’d always kept physically fit, I beat a lot of them in activities like running and pushups. When I finished, my drill instructor drove me over to the other side of Fort Benning to begin officer candidate school.”

“I’d been told that OCS was like basic training on steroids, and it was definitely the most challenging school I’ve ever been to. About 25% of the candidates don’t make it through on the first try,” he said. With more academic responsibilities, including reading, research, and presentations, Enriquez drew upon the skills the Army taught him as an enlisted soldier. “I had already learned to be humble and be thick-skinned, so that helped me not to take any criticism personally. I was able to just learn from it and move on.”

Networking with other young officers beforehand helped, too. “They really set my expectations going in, and gave me advice about courses and other challenges I’d be encountering.” He graduated from OCS in November of 2014 with lots of family in attendance.

The next step toward achieving his goal: military police (MP) school at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri beginning in June 2015. “I loved the field exercises and hands-on stuff the best. I also had to do a lot of public speaking. We’d receive make-believe battle scenarios and present our plan for how to resolve various situations.” Enriquez also received training on active shooter scenarios, patrolling, clearing buildings, and firing weapons ranging from handguns to belt-fed automatic machine guns. Part of the rigorous program included tasering and being and sprayed with pepper spray, which he described as “like someone putting a blow torch on your face.”

Enriquez will soon put his newfound police training to good use: his MP unit is scheduled to deploy to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in June 2016 for one year. He is ready for the challenge. “Aside from funding my education, the military taught be to be organized and to plan ahead. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m much more efficient with my time now,” he said.

By Katie Becker