KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO
Marine Oscar Aguilera thanks his sixth-grade teacher Patty Kohl at a ceremony at Greenport High School Saturday. He credits her and others at the school with helping him turn his life around.
When U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Oscar Aguilera moved to Greenport from Nicaragua in the second grade, it took all his effort to learn the language and keep up with his class work.
This weekend, when he re-enlisted and accepted a promotion from sergeant to staff sergeant in a small ceremony on the lawn in front of Greenport School, he honored the teachers and friends who had pushed him along in his early years.
Staff Sgt. Aguilera, 30, enlisted in the Marine Corps just after graduating from Greenport High School in 1999. He completed two tours of duty in Iraq as a member of the Weapons Company of the First Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, a reserve infantry force based in Perryville, Ohio. His company is currently preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in May 2011.
When Sgt. Aguilera was preparing for his re-enlistment ceremony, a renewal of his commitment to his career after 10 years of service, his superior officers asked him where he wanted it to be held. He was quick to remember the staff at Greenport Schools, including former Superintendent Charles Kozora, his sixth-grade teacher Patty Kohl and Roberta Kruszeski, an assistant librarian who helped him learn to read. He called them all, insisting that they take part in the ceremony.
“Ronald Reagan said everyone spends a lifetime wondering if they made a difference. Marines don’t have that,” said Sgt. Aguilera as he honored each of his teachers and family in the moving ceremony in front of the school. “You guys work with young kids. You guys should not question that when you’re done.”
He said he’d sometimes had an antagonistic relationship with Dr. Kozora, who remembered a time when Oscar was thrown out of a sporting event because he didn’t agree with an official.
“I grabbed him by the belt and finally got him calmed down,” said Dr. Kozora at Saturday’s ceremony, “but that fight and fire never went out of his heart.”
Sgt. Aguilera, in turn, reminded Dr. Kozora of the time he had just started driving and backed his car into the superintendent’s bumper. He said that Dr. Kozora had forgiven him, but had also made sure that his student confessed the incident to his parents.
“I forgot all about that,” said Dr. Kozora, who had given a speech at the 1999 graduation about the difficulties Oscar had overcome in order to graduate with his class.
“The whole place was in tears because Oscar made it,” remembered Roberta Kruszeski, who also took part in the ceremony Saturday evening. She spent as much free time as she could reading with Oscar when he first enrolled in elementary school.
“He came to school not speaking any English, but he learned very well. He was at a point where he didn’t want anyone to sit and read to him but me. He called me his second mom and I loved it,” she said. “He’s quite an inspirational young man.”
Sgt. Aguilera also called Ms. Kohl, his sixth-grade teacher, to the front of the crowd to be honored.
“I’m still scared of you,” he said under his breath, then recounted the times that his teacher had taken him to Community Action of Southold Town, a local human services program for low-income residents, for tutoring help in social studies and math. “You’re by far one of the best teachers I’ve had in my life.”
Sgt. Aguilera’s parents, JosÃ and Yolanda Miranda, who live in Greenport, were also at the ceremony. Mrs. Miranda said she had been scared when her son first told her he wanted to join the marines after high school. She recounted how one of the driving forces behind her decision to leave Nicaragua was that she wanted to spare her children the violence there.
“It was a surprise for me. I was scared,” she said. “But now, he’s going to the second country and I’m not scared anymore.”
Sgt. Aguilera, who was in town just for the weekend before returning to Ohio, left behind one message for current students in Greenport.
“Keep your hopes and dreams high and listen to your mentors,” he said.