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Brooklyn airman honored on Hispanic Heritage Night

by Gordy Stillman / New Jersey Devils
US Air Force Staff Sgt. Pedro Aponte grew up in Brooklyn, where he often liked to prove people wrong, succeeding in difficult challenges. Now, Aponte works as a recruiter, aiming to showcase military service as a career option. Aponte was the Hero of the Game on Hispanic Heritage Night presented by Goya. Photo by Joe Marte

United States Air Force Staff Sgt. Pedro Aponte was inspired to join the military when, as a high school student in Brooklyn, NY, he witnessed the attacks on September 11, 2001. The first airman in a family of Marines Aponte, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was recognized by the New Jersey Devils as the team’s Hero of the Game on January 2, as the team celebrated Hispanic Heritage Night presented by Goya.

With uncles in the United States Marine Corps, Aponte chose to follow a different path. “People told me it was hard to get into the Air Force,” Aponte said of his childhood in Brooklyn. “I always liked to prove them wrong.” On February 14, 2006, Aponte joined the military, attending basic training in San Antonio, Texas, and subsequent training in Pensacola, Fla., before being assigned to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. On September 18, 2008, Aponte’s 23rd birthday, he was deployed to the Middle East.

Working out of Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula, Aponte supported missions as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and operations around the Horn of Africa by repairing aircraft and ensuring planes were fit to fly. After returning to the United States in January 2009, Aponte returned to McGuire where he continued to fix planes.

In 2011, Aponte was selected to become part of the presidential support team. “I didn’t meet the President, but while he was on his missions, basically, we were on standby to fix his planes whenever he needed us.” Explaining what he did in the role, Aponte described his team as the “plastic surgeons of the air force,” making aircraft look like they should, and fixing underlying issues. “We were the ones that would say whether a plane was going to fly or not.”

After his term with the presidential support team, drawing on his experiences growing up, Aponte became a recruiter, aiming to showcase the Air Force as an option and path forward for teenagers coming from potentially difficult situations. “Growing up in Brooklyn, you didn’t know how you were going to get out or what you were going to be able to do, especially back when I was growing up, it was a little harder.”

For his service, Aponte received the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal. All three awards represent participation and service in the operations Aponte was assigned within the Air Force.

The New Jersey Devils added to Aponte’s honors, celebrating him as the team’s Hero of the Game on the first home game of 2016. “It caught me by surprise,” Aponte said of the recognition. “When you join the military, you don’t join for the recognition…it is a great honor, especially being a Hispanic.” Aponte said his family was very excited to celebrate the recognition with him.

A one-time resident of Newark, Aponte said he’s recently become a hockey fan, and that he always liked the Devils because red was his favorite color. “I just like the whole look of the Devils.”

Aponte’s recognition was just one part of a night full of celebrating New Jersey’s Hispanic community. Before the game began, fans were treated to a performance by the Estilo Latino Dance Company of Elizabeth, NJ, featuring Manuel Olalla and Gabriela Rojas, the second-place winners in the Salsa Junior Couples event at the World Latin Dance Cup, held two weeks ago in Miami.

Goya, the New Jersey Devils’ presenting partner on Hispanic Heritage Night, donated 100 tickets to the game for the benefit of Catholic Charities, had brand ambassadors on hand throughout the night, and provided coupons to a lucky row of fans during the game. The Jersey City-based company was also present as Prudential Center gave away tickets to the upcoming Marc Anthony Concert on February 13, the first performance in Prudential Center’s Latin Concert Series presented by Goya.

Extending the partnership to the team’s nightly 50/50 raffle, the New Jersey Devils donated the more than $10,000 proceeds of the game’s raffle to the Maestro Cares Foundation, an organization Goya supports in its own philanthropic ventures.

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