Greenport soldier home from Afghanistan to be honored tonight

12/23/2011 2:30 PM |

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Army veteran Jimmy Contreras of Greenport, recently back from Afghansitan, with Shelter Island Police Officer Walter Richards.

At a time when much of the country is wrapped up in the immigration debate, a Nicaraguan-born man who made the U.S. his home, joined its armed services and recently returned from Afghanistan is about to get special recognition from his former employer.

Before joining the Army, 28-year-old Jimmy Contreras of Greenport had worked for Liberty Landscaping, owned by Shelter Island police officer Walter Richards. To celebrate Mr. Contreras’ homecoming, the landscaping company will throw a party for him Friday at the Shelter Island Legion Hall from 6 to 8 p.m.

Mr. Richards credits the Legion with contributing the space and doing much of the preliminary work. The entire community is invited, he said.

“I am proud of being part of the diversity of the people of the United States,” Mr. Contreras said. He calls it “a privilege” to be an American. “It was a dream come true to be here in the land of opportunities and freedom.”

Mr. Contreras was 17 when he first came to the United States in 2000 through an amnesty program that put him on the citizenship track. His parents had preceded him here and have long worked for Claudio’s restaurant. Mr. Contreras still has two sisters and a grandmother back in Nicaragua and he calls them frequently and visits every few years.

He’s grateful to the Greenport community for quickly making him feel so much at home.

He recalls struggling to learn English when first arriving in Greenport and he spent three years at Greenport High School working on his language skills.

“As soon as I learned the language, I was able to graduate and I was proud to show my potential,” he said.

After graduation, he worked at a few Shelter Island restaurants and then with a masonry company before securing a job with Mr. Richards’ landscaping company. He describes Mr. Richards as “a great man” who treated him like family.

“He is my role model,” Mr. Contreras said. “He is very professional, respectful and a great friend.”

Similarly, Mr. Richards talked about Mr. Contreras as a worker who became a friend and always demonstrated a strong work ethic and a willingness to push himself to achieve.

It’s hardly surprising that Mr. Contreras has been taking courses in criminal justice with an eye to pursuing a law enforcement career “just like Walter in Shelter Island,” he said

His year in Afghanistan was spent providing convoy security as a gunner and transporting ammunition, parts and food to U.S. troops in the southern part of the country.

“It was a long year, very dangerous,” Mr. Contreras said. His unit was deployed for as much as a week at a time in convoys that had to make their way along unimproved terrain and through mountains, plains and remote villages. Summer weather was hotter than he had ever experienced and the dust was dense and constant.

The winter was particularly brutal, but what made it tolerable, he said, was the troops supported one another.

“We became family,” he said.

“The enemy was very active all year, so we had to be alert to stay alive,” Mr. Contreras added.

As a result of his service in Afghanistan, he will receive a promotion in January at his home base in Fort Hood, Texas, rising from private first class to specialist.

Meanwhile, he has been granted a brief vacation with his family at home in Greenport. By April, he said, he could be deployed to Japan or Germany or be stationed in the United States. Because he’s a part of a transportation unit at Fort Hood, his unit will be sent wherever such services are needed, he said.

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