When Charles H. Perez arrived in America with his parents in 1956, he couldn't detect much difference between his new Florida home and his native Cuba.
"There was a significant American influence (in Cuba) at the time, so I hardly noticed a change," Perez recalled in a telephone interview from Hill Air Force Base, where he is vice commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Center.But when reflecting on the turn of events in his homeland the past 37 years, Perez credits in large part his family's immigration to the United States for his professional success.
On Thursday, Perez was promoted to brigadier general - the first Cuban native to attain general rank in the Air Force.
"Yes I am proud of it," the 44-year-old career military man said of his accomplishment. "But it speaks for the American system and military system that allows a foreign-born person to do well if he or she is willing to work hard at it."
Indeed, Perez is the perfect spokesman for the American dream.
While life wasn't bad in Cuba, the wealth had been concentrated among a small group and unrest was brewing among the people. Perez's father sensed uncertainty at home and opportunity abroad, so he took his wife and 11-year-old son to Florida for a new start.
From the moment they arrived, the Perez family didn't look back. The new general said he believed entering the Air Force's officer training school after graduating from college in 1967 and serving in Vietnam was "the right thing to do."
"When we came to this nation we intended to make it our country," he said. "Yeah, it is hard to consider the land I was born in to be the enemy, but I have never had a problem with that, especially considering the kind of man (Communist dictator Fidel Castro) that is there now."
Following his wartime tour in southeast Asia, Perez applied for medical school but was rejected. Failing to get into medical school was devastating for the chemistry major who had so far lived a somewhat charmed, middle-class life.
"It was the first time I had lost at something. I was pretty down," he recalled.
About a week later, the Air Force invited him to continue his education at its Institute of Technology. His wife, Miriam, encouraged him to take up the offer. He earned a master's degree in systems and logistics at the institute. He has completed other military education programs and has risen through the ranks, holding management and leadership positions at bases in the United States and Spain.
A year after being made colonel, Perez was transferred to Hill in 1989 as director of contracting and manufacturing. What he expected to be a two-year stint, has been stretched to four with two promotions.
"The Lord has been very generous. Getting promoted to general and staying at Hill, it doesn't get much better than that," he said.
As vice commander, Perez said he and the Hill commander, Brig. Gen. Lester L. Lyles, want to make the base a competitive, cost-effective aerospace depot that will escape the next round of base closures.
Perez credits the Pentagon for stressing efficiency and cutting out unnecessary expense. But he said the military is not a business and everything can't be analyzed and justified in terms of dollars and cents.
Downsizing shouldn't be done at the expense of security and national defense, he explained. "Certain things have to be done regardless of the cost. The minute we forget that our mission is to provide a credible defense to our nation, then we are in trouble."