Earn it: The TSgt. Elias Aponte story of redemption

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. --

From his earliest days as an Airman at basic training, TSgt. Elias Aponte said things didn’t come easy.

“Earn it!” TSgt. Aponte recalled what his drill sergeant would shout. “That’s all he ever said to us.”

Looking back through the long lens of time, the Security Forces Squadron sergeant said his life could best be described as a series of seemingly insurmountable mountains he managed to climb each time.

Born and raised in Bronx, N.Y., TSgt. Aponte still lives there when he’s not drilling with the Patriot Wing or working as a conductor for Metro North throughout New York.

He said he grew up in a household with a father who was handicapped from polio, but strong in spirit.

“My dad was a man of very little words, but when he spoke it said volumes,” TSgt. Aponte said. “He could have played the handicap card, but he never used it; he could move and get around, so he did.”

As he grew older, TSgt. Aponte said he valued more and more the examples his father gave him of working hard and not taking handouts.

Before joining the military reserves, he worked his way up into management of a retail store and became a top salesman in his early 20s, but the money wasn’t enough.

He decided to join the military and met with Air Force and Marine Corps recruiters—weighing his options.

MOUNTAIN I

“I went through the whole process with the active-duty Air Force and was about to go in, but that’s when my brother passed away,” TSgt. Aponte recalled, citing his older brother as one of his biggest supporters—taken away too early by an asthma attack and resultant cardiac arrest.

It took him a long time to learn to live with the loss. And then the military rose again to his mind, he said. “In 2006, I had an employee who was a former Marine and he told me about the reserves, which I had no clue existed.”

TSgt. Aponte was a criminal justice major at John Jay College in New York, and so he set his sights on a law enforcement career in the military.

By 2008, TSgt. Aponte was in boot camp after waiting more than a year for a potential slot as a Security Forces member.

He was on his way—and a go-to recruit for his Training Instructor, TSgt. James Collins, who is now a master sergeant in the Air Force.

MOUNTAIN II

“Early one morning, my TI called me into his office and told me to clear out my locker and report to CQ,” TSgt. Aponte said, recalling the second rude awakening of his young life that would yet again derail his desire to join the military. “There were police waiting for me and they placed me in handcuffs and led me away.”

TSgt. Aponte would be discharged only months after joining the military and near the end of his basic training experience.

But the voice of his father, and his own internal pride, stirred in him on that morning.

“I didn’t know why they were arresting me,” TSgt. Aponte said. “I just turned to my training instructor and said: ‘I will be back.’”

The law enforcement representatives were NYPD detectives. They were what TSgt. Aponte wanted to become. And yet they were taking him away from the doorway to opportunity he’d chosen on his path to law enforcement.

What was worse is he didn’t know why.

“I asked them, ‘What did I do?' They didn’t want to say anything to me until I spoke to the detective in charge back in New York.”

Aponte was taken from Texas to New York. He arrived in his hometown and learned that an account at his old company had been accessed to purchase over $90,000 dollars in merchandise. He faced the pending charge of grand larceny, which carried a minimum of 15 years in prison.

But resounding evidence pointed away from TSgt. Aponte and he was brought in to meet a remorseful district attorney.

“He offered to give me any assistance he could.” But TSgt. Aponte said he didn’t want a handout. “He asked me: ‘What do you need from me?’”

EARN IT!

In the moments while seated before the district attorney, TSgt. Aponte said he again could hear his father telling him: “If you start something, you have to finish it.”

“I said: I just need this to be behind me so I can go back to the military—and finish what I started.”

Within a month of that whole harrowing experience, TSgt. Aponte was back at basic training, back on a law enforcement track in the military, and back at his old squadron.

 “The training staff was surprised,” he recalled, and he said even more astonishingly, “My TI said he was ‘happy to see me back;’ he told me: ‘Finish strong—and make sure you earn it!’”