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
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
As he grew older, TSgt. Aponte said he
valued more and more the examples his father gave him of working hard and not
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.
“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
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
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.
“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
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?’”
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.
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!’”