JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
"My grandma was in charge of drug and weapon distribution from the east coast down to the Caribbean," said Tech. Sgt. Claudio Collazo Jr, 59th Medical Operations Squadron healthcare manager.
"Many of my father's friends boasted about my future in that same kind of life which eventually spearheaded our family leaving the city. Getting away was our only shot for not necessarily a better life, but a life at all," he said.
Collazo's mother told his father she was leaving, taking their infant child with or without him. The ultimatum hurdled the young family out of New York City and landed them in Connecticut.
His father scrapped to find work as a carpenter, sweating through various cabinet manufacturing projects. Unfortunately, legitimate labor provided much less than his previous employment, frequently landing young Claudio’s head on homeless shelter pillows.
“I was in elementary school when my maternal grandpa passed away,” he said. “It really changed everything because even though my father’s career path started to trend upward with his cabinets, my mom needed to be by her family during that rough time.”
The family once again packed up and moved, this time to be closer to his mother’s family in Puerto Rico. Collazo found that their new home was a much colder and harsher place than his already inconsistent situation in Connecticut. Concerns about where to ride his bicycle during the day transitioned to a child’s worry about whether he would die in his sleep due to a stray bullet.
“While it was nice to be closer to family, I had to grow up quickly to survive,” he said. “I heard my first gun shot and saw my first dead body in that neighborhood. I saw things there that I never wanted to see. Whenever I heard shots at night, I always told myself they were just firecrackers in order to stay calm enough to sleep.”
Moving rapidly between Puerto Rico and Connecticut for the following years, Collazo grew up longing for stability, associating the idea as a pinnacle of success.
After returning to the United States again at 15, he vowed to stay and earn a stable, quality life. A life that did not include living in homeless shelters. Forgoing his educational desires, Collazo dropped out of school and got married a year later.
In support of his new, very young family, the hard-working young man found work as a kitchen laborer at ESPN. He crossed paths with many famous people, fueling his desire for a better life. Collazo was convinced that if he poured everything he had into even the smallest of jobs, someone would eventually give him a chance.
“I became the go-to man at my job. I was 17 running the night shift by myself, managing a 2.5 million dollar facility,” Collazo said. “I didn’t meet just the people in front of the cameras, but also behind them, and many were retired Air Force people. That was the first time joining the military really entered my head.”
The seed had been planted, but Collazo was still a high school drop-out, rendering him unqualified for enlistment into the Air Force. He knew he couldn’t work in the cafeteria forever, so he took matters into his own hands yet again.
“I don’t like people saying I can’t do something, or I’m not good enough,” Collazo said. “I had family members tell my dad I’d be an addict, a drug dealer, or wouldn’t make it, and that fueled me to be more than that. I went to the library, picked up the General Education Diploma book, and I told myself I had to do something to take the next steps.”
Collazo went to night classes and earned his GED on his second try. With his first educational success in hand, Collazo made his way into the Army recruiter’s office. They welcomed him with an opportunity to be an infantryman and he began preparing for life as a Soldier.
“While I was working out with the Army late one day, I saw an Air Force recruiter with his office lights still on, so I decided to just say hi,” he said. “I’ll never forget him, Master Sgt. Riley, standing there in his blues. We started talking and he told me my GED wasn’t good enough. It did not meet the standard for enlistment.That rejection really lit a fire and fueled me to prove him wrong.”
Abandoning his march towards the Army, Collazo started getting all the college credits beyond his GED needed to enlist in the Air Force. Working three jobs and going to school at the same time, he eventually earned the right to leave for Air Force’s Basic Military Training. It was during this professional breakthrough that Collazo simultaneously crossed into more dark-times in his personal life.
“I remember getting my first phone call home during basic,” he said with several pauses. “I was so excited to talk to my wife and tell her about what is going on. It was weird though…the other side of the phone didn’t seem as exited. I really only got dry responses back.”
Collazo, during a time of significant breakthrough, encountered hurdles that almost derailed his budding Air Force career.
“I discovered in technical school one day that my wife had cleaned out my bank account and had left me,” he said. “My car got repossessed and I became mentally overwhelmed by everything happening personally, while still trying to do my best in tech school. Luckily, the superintendent of the schoolhouse brought me to his office and said that he was going to help me out. He went out of his way to help me settle the storm and be able to continue on this journey.”
Collazo remained resilient and persevered through the crushing blow of his wife leaving him, crediting his Air Force support structure as a pillar that shaped him into being who he is today.
“After living in homeless shelters and seeing dead bodies on the street, I don’t want that for my kids,” Collazo, who remarried several years later, said. “I want to give them the option to go to college and have a good future, without having to overcome some of the things that I did. The Air Force not only helped me out, but it gave my kids a brighter future.”
Collazo doesn’t shy away from the path he took to get where he is today, openly sharing his story to those around him when appropriate. For being the grandson of a crime-lord, a high school dropout, night shift laborer, left by his spouse with nothing, Collazo is still widely known as the most positive, dedicated, professional Airman in his shop.
While his story is still unfolding through the remaining years of his Air Force Career, Collazo embraces the opportunity ahead.
“I was blessed with leadership throughout my career that have given me an opportunity to change my life,” he said. “Their impact on my life fuels me to repay them by working as hard as I can. Hopefully, I can provide the same kind of mentorship to younger Airmen out there who have people telling them they won’t make it. I want to be able to be there and tell them, ‘Don’t surrender, start the fire inside of you and keep fueling it. Don’t listen to negativity, but keep moving forward.’ That’s my goal now.”