While virtual ceremonies have become commonplace since the outbreak of COVID-19, Cadet Andrew Salinas, now 2nd Lt. Andrew Salinas, had to plan his Sept. 18, 2020, virtual commissioning around California’s raging wildfires. Salinas, a student and cadet at California State University in Los Angeles, is also a wildland firefighter with the United States Forest Service.
Salinas wasn’t sure he’d have time for a commissioning ceremony while responding to the Lake and Bobcat Fire, but firefighter Louis Esparza of the Angeles National Forest convinced him otherwise.
Salinas’ ceremony was prerecorded on site in East Palmdale, Calif., where he has been fighting local wildfire, with his parents and Sgt. 1st Class (retired) Mark Romano able to be on-hand to take part.
“I was able to get my first salute and my parents were able to pin me. It was all last-minute planning and it worked out perfectly,” Salinas said.
The South Pasadena, Calif., native said being a fireman is a recent decision, but definitely not one he regrets.
“I did not have an interest and knew very little about wildland firefighting until one of my fellow cadets introduced me to his brother who was a Wildland Firefighter on a Type 2 Hand Crew with the United States Forest Service. He asked me if I was a good hiker and runner. I replied ‘yes’ and he told me to go to the orientation for his crew in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles,” Salinas said. “They took all the new guys on hikes, carrying at least 50-pounds of gear up Brand Park trail in Glendale on Sundays at 8 a.m. and had PT Monday through Friday from 7 to 9 p.m., testing our commitment to the program.
“After the two-week probation period, it started with about 100 people, declining to 25. After I made it onto the crew, COVID-19 hit. Everything slowed down. We were supposed to get a two-week training course with the little Tujunga hotshots in Sylmar, California, which turned to two days,” he said. “What got me hooked to the wildland fireman lifestyle was hiking, cutting line, and the camaraderie.”
Salinas said the feelings of community, belonging and camaraderie he feels as part of the firefighting team is something he has also enjoyed as a Hispanic American.
“I grew up in a Mexican American household as both parents were born in the United States and each had a parent born in Mexico. They tried to continue the culture by trying to teach me Spanish, cooking Mexican food, and exposing me to an array of Mexican composers from Augustin Lara to Vicente Fernandez,” he shared. “They were part founding members of Vecinos (pronounced Be See Nos meaning Neighbors) de South Pasadena. This organization was created to bring together Latinos and non-Latinos alike to form a stronger community in South Pasadena and share the richness of the Latino culture.
“I was exposed to Latino arts, writers, scholars, music, and worked/volunteered in their biggest fundraiser of the year, Día de Los Muertos. Through this organization, we were able to provide scholarships to college bound high school seniors from South Pasadena High School and helped sponsor Latino community events in South Pasadena.” he added. Sallinas has also travelled to Costa Rica and Peru volunteering and assisting doctors though the Glendale Community College Global Medical Training club.
Salinas said he joined ROTC because he wanted to serve in the military since he was a child.
“I was planning on enlisting after I graduated from Cal State Los Angeles, but my mentor said that I should take a look at ROTC. After talking to the Cadre and finding out what officer life was like in the Army, I was determined to get my rank,” he explained.
He went on to credit his ROTC experience for teaching him determination and time management.
“This program exposed me to different challenges I did not even know I could overcome,” he said. I joined as a third-year in college after transferring from Glendale Community college where I spent five years at to get my Associates in Arts and enough credits to transfer. I was already older than most of the cadets but at the end of the day, but age is just a number.”
Salinas credits his program leadership with ensuring his success by thinking outside of the box to accommodate his and others challenges.
“It was financially expensive to the point where I would have $1.20 in my checking account, but it taught me to do more with less,” Salinas said. “It wasn’t until my senior year where I walked into the professor of military science’s office and told him there are students at CSULA that want to join ROTC but cannot afford the commute. Lt. Col. (Steve) Kwon was able to let me start Charlie Company (unofficially) which consisted of CSULA students that met in the morning at 5:50 a.m. to exercise.
“Managing Charlie Company taught me to communicate with my battle buddies and to make sure they had everything they needed to be successful. ROTC is a community of people that have different ambitions, goals, motivation, and personalities. There is no right answer or road map, all I can control is how I feel throughout the day and treat others,” Salinas shared.
Salinas said his Army ROTC training has benefitted him as a firefighter as well.
“Transferring from the UCLA ROTC program to a Type Two AD Hand Crew was an adjustment, but it did not take long to get acclimated. I took the army values and was able to transfer it to the firefighter world. Like ROTC, it all depends on what you make of it,” he said.