July 18, 2012
by Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON (AFNS) — Col. Josie Fernandez credits providence as much as persistence for her journey from Cuban refugee to the duel-hatted role she has today with the Air Force Reserve and the National Park Service.
Fernandez attended school in the rural town of Agua Dulce, near Havana, close to the national baseball stadium and even closer to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where to this day, she said, Fidel Castro still holds his “infernal rallies.”
“I dreamed about living in freedom,” said Fernandez, currently working as a public affairs officer for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We were poor as church mice, but nothing was taken away from us, other than the ability to pursue our dreams while living in Cuba.”
As Castro’s decades-long dictatorship seemed to tighten its grip on its nation’s citizens, she said, President Lyndon B. Johnson developed Freedom Flights, a program that enabled more than 250,000 Cubans to come to the United States between 1965 and 1973.
Fernandez said her parents jumped at the chance to participate in a program that facilitated U.S. access and citizenship to refugees, provided they had stateside family members willing and able to sponsor them.
Fernandez left Cuba with her brother and parents when she was 12 years old.
“It became painfully clear to my parents that in order for their children to have a meaningful life, they had to leave and start anew,” Fernandez said of her parents’ struggle as factory workers after they arrived in Miami on June 27, 1969.
Fernandez set her sights on school and went on to college while waiting to be granted American citizenship, which came, memorably, on July 4, 1976.
She met Air Force Col. Sam Johnson, at the time the commander of Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base. Fernandez found herself intrigued by the colonel’s history as a Vietnam War veteran who’d endured nearly seven years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, including 42 months in solitary confinement. The native Texan is now a member of Congress representing the state’s 3rd District and is among the few lawmakers to have fought in combat.
“When I met him, I decided I wanted to be part of an organization with leadership as great as he was,” Fernandez said. So in 1976, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
Her work and life experiences catapulted her to recognition and promotion, and her travels would take her from Florida to Aviano Air Base, Italy, to a stint with the Hurricane Hunters at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., and even to Russia.
“Living in America really affirmed that my parents had done well for me,” Fernandez said.
Her career with the National Park Service also began to blossom as she took on civilian positions, including work in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and her regular civilian job as superintendent of Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.
Her earliest memories in pursuit of freedom, she said, spurred a conversation with her father, specifically about what America meant to him.
“Like a good Cuban, he said, ‘Baseball, the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and the Grand Canyon,'” Fernandez said. “In a funny way, I’ve managed to take all that on and make it what I do.”
On June 27, 43 years to the day after she arrived in the United States, Fernandez coordinated a park pass giveaway for military members and their families through the America the Beautiful series.
In just one day, nearly a thousand people showed up at her Pentagon office to take advantage of the program, which grants free access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, national parks and wildlife refuges to active-duty service members, activated guardsmen, reservists and their families.
“I’ve been surrounded by wonderful people who inspire me and somehow I’ve been able to blend passions of mine — nature, history and the military — all while protecting and preserving our nation’s cultural and natural resources,” Fernandez said. “I’m part of a journey in which we’re sharing and educating people about the beauty and history of this country.”