DOSWELL, Va. (AP) — Moms and dads traveled from as far as California to see their sons and daughters graduate Friday from the 119th Virginia State Police academy and become troopers. But none faced the bureaucratic and political hurdles that Miriam Milian did in getting here from Cuba.
Living in Havana — just 110 air miles from Florida but a world away culturally and politically — she hadn’t seen her son Marcos Hernandez in 10 years. She came to America thanks to her son’s appeal to the State Department for a visa.
Tears glistened in her eyes as her son graduated and became an active Virginia trooper. He starts work Monday, based in Emporia. She was proud of her son. But even in Cuba, she knew that two troopers had died serving Virginia while her son was training for the same job they held.
“I think about it. I see the news from here (Virginia), and it’s very hard, the things that happened,” Milian, who speaks no English, told a reporter in Spanish through her son’s translations. Then she brightened. “He’s always wanted to follow this career and I back him up.”
It had been a long, sometimes sad road of self-discovery for Hernandez, now 38. He came to the United States in 1989 at age 14, joining his father who had left Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. They settled in Miami. He became a U.S. citizen in 2002, worked as a long-haul trucker for years. Then he managed rental properties for several more.
There were times when his longing for his mother and the rest of his extended family tempted him return to Havana to live, as he had as a child, with his mom, his grandmother, three cousins and an uncle in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
“It was very difficult for me at times. I would call her and she’d talk me out of going back to Cuba because it would have been no good for me,” he said. He’d be an outcast or, worse, a suspected spy for having lived in the United States. “I’d be watched pretty close.”
In Miami, not only did he miss his mother — so close yet so distant on Castro’s island — he knew there was another mission for him.
“I sat down with my wife and I told her that I want to do what I want to do,” he said. And what he wanted to do was become a police officer.
He might have stayed in Florida, but at the time, he said, Florida’s budget crisis prompted state police there to hire people with law enforcement experience, avoiding the cost of training rookies. So he looked northward and found Virginia willing to accept, train and hire him.
Hernandez said he first applied in 2009. Virginia also was coping with a crippling recession and billions of dollars in revenue shortfalls. State budget cuts forced the VSP to scale back its training academies, stretching the thin blue line of troopers even thinner. Hernandez used the time between applying and his enrollment to thin himself down, too, from 248 pounds to 185.
In October, he reported the academy in Richmond, had his hair shaved to stubble like other male trainees, and joined a class of 100. Hernandez was among the 90 who made it to Friday’s commencement as part of VSP’s largest academy graduating class. Sixty-seven were Virginia natives; Hernandez was the only one not born on U.S. soil.
There were long, tiring days and lonely nights billeted in the academy dormitories. On weekends, with his wife Blanca, 52, he could share details of his fast-changing life in a place far from their tropical homeland. And he resolved to make one more attempt to have his mother present for his graduation. He took his request right to the top.
“So I wrote the State Department a letter explaining everything and so that they could carry it to the (U.S.) Embassy in Havana, and this time it made a big difference that I was graduating from the police academy because they approved her to come here,” Hernandez said.
No sooner had he entered the academy than the gravity of the profession he chose shook his entire training class. A new trooper, 27-year-old Andrew Fox, was struck and killed by a sport utility vehicle as he directed traffic outside the Virginia State Fair near Doswell, not two miles from Friday’s graduation venue.
Midway through his training, Master Trooper Junius A. Walker, 63 and on the cusp of retirement, was shot to death in Dinwiddie County when he stopped to check on what appeared to be a distressed vehicle idled on the shoulder of Interstate 85.
State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty the remembered the fallen lawmen at Friday’s graduation and asked graduates to honor their memory in the public service they were about to begin.
“Dangers exist with what we do. There is a reality to a law-enforcement life,” he told a hushed crowd of several hundred people. “We’re the ones, the ones who run toward the gunfire, not away from it.”
That’s the reality that haunts Hernandez’s 59-year-old mother. But, when she boards her flight back to Cuba in August, she said, it’s a reality she will be proud to take with her.
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.
South Portico will take next Monday off and return July 15.