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Cuban émigré happy to serve country that saved him

Little Leo Castaneda, from Mantanzas, Cuba, and his family came to the United States on a raft. The 80-mile trip took three days. Today, Staff Sgt. Castaneda is assigned to the 45th Space Wing Chaplain’s office. He is pictured here with his wife, Maria, who is expecting the couple’s first child next month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chris Calkins)

An 8-year old Leo Castaneda, from Mantanzas, Cuba, came to the United States with his family on a raft. The 80-mile trip took three days. Today, Staff Sgt. Castaneda is assigned to 45th Space Wing Chaplain Services. He is pictured here with his wife, Maria, who is expecting the couple’s first child next month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chris Calkins)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- In 1992, 8-year-old Leo Castaneda wasn't sure what to expect when his Mom, Dad, and another family of three joined him in a small rubber raft as the six of them embarked on a journey from his hometown of Matanzas, Cuba, headed for the United States.

Today, Staff Sgt. Leo Castaneda knows exactly what to expect: he'll continue to serve the Air Force he loves and the country he loves even more.

Sergeant Castaneda, who works in the 45th Space Wing's Chaplain's Office, said he has vivid memories of that 80-mile ride that took nearly three days to complete.

"We were in one of those little, oval rubber rafts, kind of like the ones you see Navy Seals use," he said. "One of the things I remember most is the dolphins swimming along with us; they were so close I could reach down and touch them. When we finally got close to the U.S. coast, the dolphins came back and escorted us back in. It's like they were watching over us ... we took that as an act from God," he said.

About halfway into the trip, however, the small motor that was taking them through the choppy seas gave out, and without it, they were forced to cut loose the raft they were towing, and much of the supplies and personal affects they had planned on bringing with them just floated away.

"It's funny, but I don't remember being scared; all we wanted was the chance - and chance is the right word - to make it to the United States of America," he said.

Well, make it they did.

His father found work moving furniture; his Mom in a clothing factory (today they own their own home and business) and little Leo Castaneda was thrilled to get the very first "real" toy of his young life.

"I got a Super Nintendo for Christmas and I can remember it to this day," he said with an ear-to-ear smile. "In Cuba, they don't celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, so it was really very special to me."

Even more special to him, he said, is his wife of three-plus years, Maria, who is expecting the couple's first baby - "it's a boy," he blurted aloud - during this year's Christmas season.

Maria, who was born in Miami, is also from Cuban descent. Although she doesn't carry the same early-year memories her husband does, she has heard all the "I-want-to-make-it-to-the-United-States stories" and is as grateful as he is for the chance this country - and the United States Air Force - has given both of them.

And she also understands the compassion the Air Force can provide, which also happens to be the theme for next month's Year of Leadership emphasis.

"Last summer (2007) when we were stationed at Dover Air Force Base [Del.], we got word that my father was dying... he was only 49 years old," Maria said sadly.

Suddenly, the couple got a compassionate reassignment here to Patrick so Maria could spend more time with her terminally ill Dad.

"You don't ever forget things like that; you don't forget people who take care of you," she said.

On this point, both of them are in total agreement, which is precisely why Sergeant Castaneda will be applying for the Nursing Commissioning Program, and why he is currently going to school four nights a week at Bre-vard Community College, in addition to holding down a full time job here.

And he's taking courses like college algebra, a couple science labs, statistics, and more.

"Kinda' makes for a pretty full week," he said in an understated manner, "but I'm doing this for her... and for our new baby. I want to be an Air Force officer."

Sergeant Castaneda doesn't want to make any judgments on how people feel about certain holidays because he said that's a personal thing.

But for him, and for many others like him who have made it to American shores - and are "making it" in today's society - Thanksgiving is a very special time.

"I feel blessed to be here; I feel blessed to be serving my nation and my Air Force," he said. "Am I thankful?" he asked, while putting one hand over her right shoulder and the other gently over her pregnant belly. "Yeah; I guess you could say that," he said with a smile.