June 24, 2008
Pg. 1 A Broward County father and daughter are becoming soldiers together.
By Laura Isensee
Future soldier Gabrielle Alejandrino slowly does a set of crunches -- up and down on the damp soccer field at Coral Springs Park, urged on by her unusually close Army buddy.
''C'mon, baby, c'mon, baby,'' he says, his green eyes sparkling.
For some new Army recruits, being called 'baby' would be demeaning.
But for Gabrielle, who's 18, it's comforting. Her Army buddy is her dad, Mario, and she is his only daughter.
In what Army recruiters describe as a rare move, the father and daughter enlisted this month to become first-time soldiers.
Thursday, they head out together for basic training. To prepare for combat drills, they've been working out at the park with other recruits and soldiers.
''We're gone. We're out of here,'' Mario Alejandrino, 36, said. ``A new life is ahead of us. Luckily, we're doing it together.''
When they ship out to begin their five-year commitments, they'll leave the rest of their family in West Broward. Alejandrino's former wife Karina will take care of their two sons -- Gabrielle's brothers -- Jonathan, 15, and Joseph, 12.
Karina Alejandrino said when the two told her of their decision, she was a little shocked and apprehensive.
''We're going through a war and you hear the worst, and she's my baby girl,'' she said. But their excitement, and the fact that they're going together, reassured her. ``I trust him with her.'' The war
The Alejandrinos will train together, first basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C., then advanced training in satellite and radio communications at Fort Gordon, Ga.
After that, the Army decides where they go -- and whether they go together. They've discussed the strong possibility of being sent to fight in a war abroad.
''The war and leaving our family, my kids, behind is the roughest part,'' Alejandrino said. ``But everything else, she's with me and it's a career.''
They have not broached the subject of fighting in a war and not coming back.
''We'll cross that bridge if we get to it,'' he said. Changed lives
Joining the Army has meant major changes for both father and daughter.
Alejandrino, whose parents come from Puerto Rico and Colombia, recently left his job at a South Florida insurance agency.
Gabrielle, who was born in California and grew up in South Florida, just graduated from Coral Springs Charter School.
Both have hopes of earning a college degree through their Army career, Alejandrino in the biomedical engineering field and Gabrielle in telecommunications.
Alejandrino talks about the Army with a nearly giddy excitement. College has long been a goal, but one that seemed out of reach.
Gabrielle had the idea first. Last year, the she came home from school wearing a military beanie and talking ''Army, Army, Army,'' her dad said.
He was not thrilled. Plan A for Gabrielle was college.
That plan didn't work out, as she was wait-listed. Eager to start college, she thought the Army was the quickest route.
About the same time, Mario Alejandrino started considering the Army for himself.
He visited a recruiting office in Margate.
He called Gabrielle, and together they discussed it. ''We made all these plans and goals right then and there,'' she said. All in the family
Within a matter of weeks, they took the entry exam together, signed the Army contract and swore the pledge at Dolphin Stadium in a ceremony with about 100 other new recruits. Next up: 29 weeks of training together.
''It gives me a sense of security that I know he's there,'' Gabrielle said. ``It just makes me feel better.''
Sometimes, students' decisions to join the military raise questions, said Jennifer Canals-Diaz, assistant principal at Coral Springs Charter School. That didn't happen with Gabrielle.
''When Gabrielle makes a decision, she puts a lot of thought into it, not like a typical high school senior,'' Canals-Diaz said.
In his six years recruiting, Sgt. Shawn Rose has never seen a father and daughter enlist together.
''I see maybe fathers who've been in the military for a long time and then their sons or daughters try to follow in their footsteps,'' Rose said. Also common are siblings who sign up together.
The Army does not track the enlistment of parents and offspring, Army spokesman Harvey Spigler said.
In recent years, the U.S. military has struggled to meet its recruiting goals. It has raised signing bonuses and the maximum age for new volunteers to the forces, stretched thin between two wars abroad.
Last year, South Florida Army recruiters met 88 percent of their target, about 260 soldiers short. The region is on track to meet its goal this year, Spigler said.
For the Alejandrinos, ''Army Strong'' may become a new family tradition. Alejandrino hopes his two younger sons and maybe nieces and nephews consider the military.
''Hopefully, they'll get motivated, join up with us later on,'' he said. Pros and cons
They know there are risks, but the Alejandrinos say the benefits outweigh them.
Still, he worries about his daughter being sent to war.
''I worry like any other parent would. . . . She's my only daughter,'' he said, adding that Army policy keeps women from the front line.
He may sit down with his daughter and talk about the risk of dying in a war before they ship out.
Or he may save that father-daughter talk for later.
''We're trying to think positive,'' Alejandrino said. Benefits for Army recruits
Here are some of the benefits available to U.S. Army recruits: Salary:
$1,200 to $1,500 a month for new soldiers. Signing bonus:
$4,000 to $40,000. Education:
$62,100 for four-year enlistment, plus loan repayment program and tuition assistance for soldiers who attend school while on active duty. Other:
Room and board. SOURCE: Harvey Spigler, U.S. Army spokesman