FORT LEE, Va. – “No one believed me,” Erica L. Esqueda recalled about her decision to join the Army.

Family and friends thought of her as a “girlie girl.” The San Antonio beautician was never without the latest fashion, hair and nails. It made it hard to fathom the idea of her trading designer apparel for Army camouflage patterns.

One of her longtime salon customers – an older Italian lady who often talked with her hands – belted out one of her usual boisterous, up-from-the-belly cackles as Esqueda shared her Soldierly ambitions.

“Oh, Erica, you’re so funny” the woman chided between heaving laughs. “I said, ‘No, I’m really being serious.’ She goes, ‘No you’re not!’”

Yes, she was.

Shredding the image of her signature girlishness, Esqueda embraced the grit and grind of basic combat training, graduating earlier this year. The 37-year-old then tackled the Ordnance School’s 91B Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic Course at Fort Lee, completing the 13-week program of instruction Sept. 27.

Next in her initial entry journey, Esqueda is scheduled to take a shot at jumping out of planes and earning the coveted Parachutist Badge prior to taking a permanent party assignment at Fort Bragg, N.C. She shrugs off her lofty ambitions as though they have always existed.

“I really don’t mind getting my hands dirty,” said the wife and mother of two sons.

No doubt, Esqueda is dashing into the vast wilderness of challenge. Doing so has considerably thinned the ranks of her nonbelievers and naysayers while creating super fans of those supportive from the start. That includes her 20-year-old son, Jose, who is still awed and wide-eyed by his mother’s beauty-to-brawn transformation.

“My mom … was always about her nails – never wanted to break them, and they were always done. Her hair was, too, and she always wore nice clothes,” he said. “Then, she ends up coming to a place where she can’t really do her hair, can’t do her nails and can’t do her makeup as much.

“Seeing my mom and the way she’s doing this with ease – like it’s nothing to her – I can honestly see her going all the way through with it.”

Jose has occupied a front row seat during his mom’s life-changing makeover. He enlisted back in 2021 but injured himself during BCT at Fort Jackson, S.C. He tried again in May 2022, a few weeks after his mother shipped off to the same location. He also followed his mother to Fort Lee, where they trained in the same military occupational specialty, albeit a few weeks apart.

Throughout the initial training, the active duty Soldiers have been able to visit one another and have been supportive of their shared journey. As such, the Esquedas have been oblivious to the awkwardness generated by the occasional exchange of affectionate words, quick embraces and mother-son kisses.

“People think it is interesting and cool,” said a grinning Jose, now a private first class, and not the least uneasy about forging an Army path alongside his mother. “Of course, I get teased here and there, but I know it’s just in fun.”

At Fort Lee, Pfc. Esqueda is assigned to Bravo Co., 16th Ord. Battalion, and his mother belonged to sister unit Foxtrot Co. Jokesters have called him “mama’s boy” and occasionally threatened to “tell his mom” about any of his misdeeds or shortcomings.

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“It’s funny,” he said. “The sergeants in the unit would be in on it, too.”

Jokes aside, Pfc. Esqueda is Pvt. Esqueda’s biggest fan.

“I love my mom a lot,” said the Soldier. “It’s one of those protective-son type things. I’m willing to give my life for my mom; that’s just me. I know a lot of people will say the same thing, but she is my world. She is my life. She’s … gone to hell and back for me.”

Erica initially saw herself as a “protective Mama Bear” parent, ready to throw blows in defense of her “child” or younger battle buddies if she felt they were being treated unfairly. That attitude faded as she developed a trust in the institution to do right by her son and others.

“My first instinct was I didn’t want anyone getting after or yelling at my child. That’s my job,” she said with a hint of defiance. “Being here, though, makes you open up your eyes to a lot of things, especially discipline-wise, because … the younger generation needs a lot of guidance. My son is one of those individuals.”

Pfc. Esqueda is an “outgoing, bubbly, gets-along-with-everybody type” who needs “to buckle up for the real world,” said his mother. He also is someone who longed to serve in uniform since early childhood. Ironically, the Esquedas’ ambitions collided when Mrs. Esqueda – after sitting in on her son’s recruiting visits – became curious about joining herself.

“When we sat down with the recruiter and he would talk about the benefits, it interested me,” said Pvt. Esqueda, “because I’m not getting any younger and neither is my spouse. Benefits are very expensive nowadays.”

There is more, however, to the Esquedas’ service than benefits. Pvt. Esqueda has declared the Army her life from this point on and hopes her continued service will eventually negate the considerable amount of uncertainty she has felt about her place in the world.

“I do feel like I will find something internally I’ve been searching for,” she said.

Pvt. Esqueda’s Soldier-son – who will follow his mother to airborne training and plans to add Ranger School for good measure – also sees himself as a careerist. His youthfulness notwithstanding, he has exhibited an unadulterated confidence in his decision to serve the nation.

“For me, it’s protecting America, the place I grew up in,” he said. “I want people to keep their freedom and live the lives we always lived. That’s the reason why America is what it is.”

If that chord of patriotic sentiment isn’t as convincing as any beautician turned mechanic, what is?

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This story is written by Terrance Bell, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee. T. Anthony Bell has been assigned as a public affairs specialist with the Fort Lee Public Affairs Office since November 2005. Primarily working in the command information arena, he has covered everything from a presidential visit to a plethora of training events taking place at the Army’s Sustainment Center of Excellence. Bell approaches his duties as a community stakeholder and takes pride in the relationships cultivated with community members over the years to support command information goals. Send in your submissions to [email protected]