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Face of Defense: Modest Beginnings Lead to Bright Future

By Elaine Sanchez Brooke Army Medical Center

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JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, March 18, 2015 — When Marielos Vega was a child living on a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, she dreamed of being a nurse. She’d take empty medicine bottles and dole out pretend prescriptions to her siblings.

But growing up in her modest house, with no electricity or septic system, she chalked up her goals to just childhood fantasies. After all, she was needed at home to care for her five brothers and sisters.

Vega never imagined she’d one day be standing in the largest U.S. Army hospital in the world being honored for her promotion to major and for her exemplary work as a nurse. “I feel very honored and grateful to have achieved so much in such a short time in the military,” she said.

Responsibility at an Early Age

Vega was 12 years old when her mother took her three younger siblings and left without a word, never to return. She was left to care for her two older brothers and for her father around the clock. She recalled waking up at 4 a.m. each day to make breakfast and pack lunches before her father went to work, then walking an hour each way to school and back.

“At 14, I had to drop out of school; it became too much,” she said.

A beloved aunt who lived close by invited Vega to live with her. Seeing no future on the plantation, she packed her sparse belongings and left home. Her aunt found her work as a housekeeper with a wealthy family in San Jose. Vega cleaned and ironed for them Monday through Saturday for the next five years.

A Turning Point

When Vega was 19, her cousin invited her to come with him to New Jersey for the summer, and she jumped at the opportunity. “I had heard about others who came to the U.S. and made good money,” she said. “And I was ready for a change.”

She spoke only Spanish, but was fortunate to find work with a woman who was fluent in the language. Elayne Dimond, whose doctor husband had died years earlier, welcomed the help with housework and her two children, Paul and Jessica.

As the summer waned, Vega prepared to return to Costa Rica. However, Dimond had different plans as she sat down with Vega to discuss her future.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” Vega said. “She told me she didn’t see a future for me in Costa Rica. She invited me to stay with her and [said] she’d help me go to school, and I gratefully accepted.”

Before she could consider college, Vega first had to earn her high school equivalency diploma. She breezed through the program in three months and started college as a biology major, the start of her nursing path. To help improve her English, her host family placed labels on nearly every item around the house, and to do well in college, Vega repeatedly listened to her recorded lectures.

In her senior year, Vega was accepted into her school’s newly established nursing program, and she graduated in 2000 with her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Seeking U.S. Citizenship

She picked up work as a family medicine nurse at New Jersey Medical School, now part of Rutgers University, and swapped out her student visa for a work visa. Vega hired a lawyer to help facilitate her citizenship, but had made no progress by the time her visa expired in late 2008. Instead, she returned to school to earn her master’s degree in nursing.

As she neared the end of her degree program and visa expiration, Vega was at a dead end. She was about to give up when a radio ad about a new military pilot program caught her attention. The Defense Department had just launched Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, which offered a fast track to U.S. citizenship to eligible visa holders in the health care field in exchange for a military commitment.

“I applied, and everything fell into place very quickly,” Vega said. “I was in the Army in just a few months, and accepted for citizenship about four months later.”

Vega recalled the day she took the oath of allegiance in front of family and friends in Newark, New Jersey, and the tears she saw in everyone’s eyes.

“For the first time in a long time, I felt free,” she said. “I could finally let the fear of being sent back to a place with unhappy memories go. I belonged here.”

Vega reported to Brooke Army Medical Center here, her first duty station, in September 2010, and was later chosen to work in cardiology, where she could foster her passion for research. But after more than four years here, it’s time for Vega to move on. Next up is a prestigious job working for the chief nurse of Europe Regional Medical Command and the consultant to the surgeon general on nursing research in Sembach, Germany.

Fearless Character

At Vega’s promotion last month, Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) James Watts, assistant chief of cardiology and chief of the Heart Failure Service, had one word to describe Vega: “Fearless.”

“She’s attacked every challenge we’ve given her with vigor and a fearless character,” he said. “We could all learn a lot from Major Vega.”

Vega rarely talks about her humble beginnings, choosing to keep her focus on the future. “The past is the past,” she said. “It was tough, but it gave me the ability to overcome obstacles. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t live my journey.”

Above all, she added, she’s grateful for the help Dimond gave to a teenager from another country with few prospects for the future.

“I’m very grateful for her support, and plan to pay it forward and be a mentor to many young officers,” she said. “We are meant to help each other. That’s what life is all about.”