FORT LEE, Va. (April 29, 2015) — Living in a housing community where 15 families share a single electric line is a fact of life for many in Jamaica.
“People built their houses close together because of the limited electricity and access to water,” said Tango Company, 266th Quartermaster Battalion 1st Sgt. Renaco Stewart. “Sure, it wasn’t safe, but the closer you are to each other, the more power you get.”
Growing up in Jamaica was tough, said Stewart, but he enjoyed the time with his family.
“It’s a lot of poverty and not having a lot of things,” he said. “You get by with family. Like if you needed salt, you would just ask your family. It’s a close-knit community.”
Nearly 3 million people live on the 4,244-square-mile island, and there weren’t many opportunities to change your life, said Stewart.
“Most things you deal with when you live in a third-world country always have a hook to it,” he said. “If someone gives you an opportunity, most of the time, you have to pay them money or do something else for them.”
In 1994, while he was in high school, Stewart visited America for the first time to help him figure out his future.
“My parents wanted to give me a better life and an opportunity to see something different. They wanted me to have a chance to excel,” he said. “Jamaica is a great place to live, but opportunities are very limited.”
After his mother asked him what he wanted to do with his life, Stewart said he wanted a change. She somehow scraped together $10,000 for travel expenses and a ticket to the U.S. where he could visit relatives.
“I flew into New York City and it was beautiful at night,” said Stewart of that first trip. “I woke up in the morning and was in a basement in Brooklyn and thought it didn’t look like it was on TV.”
Regardless, Stewart decided to take up permanent residence in America and stay with family in NYC after he completed school until he found his calling. His first opportunity was a temp job at a bank, making $50 a week. He quickly realized he was working for bus fare, and didn’t even have enough for lunch each day. He quit after three days.
“At the time, my cousin was joining the Army,” said Stewart. “He asked if I wanted to talk to his recruiter. I asked what he would be recruiting me into.”
So Stewart decided to meet with his cousin’s recruiter — Staff Sgt. Clark, an infantryman.
“I sat down to talk to him, and he asked me what I wanted to do,” he said. “I told him ‘I want to get out of Brooklyn … now.’
“He asked me when I wanted to go, and I said ‘today,'” continued Stewart. “He told me I needed to take a pre-test, and I said ‘forget the pre-test, let’s take the test.’ I took the test and, the next thing I knew, I was getting sworn in and getting on a bus.”
When choosing his military occupational specialty, Stewart said he had several different choices.
“The Army offered me $20,000 to be an infantryman,” he said. “Sgt. Clark looked over at me and said ‘You’re going to earn every bit of that $20,000. You may want to stay away from infantry.'”
Based on his test scores, two of his choices were 92A — automated logistical specialist — and 92Y — unit supply specialist.
“I made the decision with very little information,” he said. “I was in New York and I thought of the Yankees, so I decided to go with 92 Yankee.”
Becoming a naturalized citizen wasn’t Stewart’s goal for joining the Army, but once he was in, he learned that after five years of service he could start the application process. He decided to pursue it as soon as he could.
“When you’re just a resident, you can’t vote,” he said. “After I became a citizen in 2004, I could exercise my right to vote. There are a lot of forms you have to fill out — in the Army and otherwise — that has a block you can check if you’re a citizen, and that meant a lot to being able to finally check that block.”
Stewart knows his children will never experience the hardships he had since they were born in America. He said he likes to share stories from his childhood so his children learn to take advantage of all that this country has to offer.
“I like to tell my children about how I only had one pair of shoes,” he said. “I had a pair of Adidas. I wore that pair down until my feet were actually touching the ground and I had to put cardboard in the shoes.
“I also tell them about my pair of pants I had to let out as I grew,” Stewart continued. “I wasn’t going to get another pair of pants, so I had to keep letting them out until the point they were raggedly.”
It’s important for Stewart to share his experiences because he said he wants his children to appreciate the opportunities.
“My father always said ‘what you have now, you have to build on it. Don’t go backward,'” he said. “So, what I tell my kids is ‘what you dad has, you have to strive to be better. You don’t have to go below what your dad has.’ They get it.”
Stewart has served in the Army for 16 years and said it’s the best decision he could have made.
“I am not going to lie — the Army is a tough place,” he said. “I tell people all the time this business is not for everybody. You have to be a little bit crazy and you have to accept the challenge. But I wouldn’t do anything else.
“I am so happy I made that decision,” Stewart continued. “I’m so happy for the opportunity to do this.”
Stewart said he is often told that he encourages Soldiers who are from another country because they see his success in the Army.
“I try to go to naturalization ceremonies to share my experience and show these warriors there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m at the top of the food chain, but you can strive and achieve things in the Army. I think it’s good for them to see they can get to a different level by working for it.”
Because he can understand their struggles, Stewart said he shares an affinity for other Soldiers who hail from different countries.
“I think it’s good for them to hear my broken English and know I wasn’t born in America,” he said. “They know there’s an opportunity for them to do better.”