MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Virginia -- A 16-year-old Luis E. Velazquez woke up in rural Humacao, Puerto Rico, and headed for a bus leaving from the small market in the center of town. He didn’t know which way to go when he got off in Santurce, a barrio of San Juan. He just knew Santurce reminded him of New York—the way it looked and sounded, and made him feel he needed to look like he knew where he was going, even if he didn’t.
He eventually found where he was going—a vocational school where his father enrolled him in a computer science course to keep him out of trouble. Luis, a future Navy petty officer, Marine Corps officer and Marine Corps Systems Command employee, was the only student still in his teens.
To this day, Velazquez does not know how his father found the class, but he knows it changed the course of his life.
The Velazquez family made the move from Brooklyn to Puerto Rico when Luis was 14. His mother became ill with rheumatoid arthritis, and the cold New York weather was not good for her. So his father sold the family’s grocery store and restaurant, and moved his wife and three sons to his place of birth.
“It was different, so different,” Velazquez said. “You could look out the window and there wasn’t a neighbor in sight.”
There was the language barrier, too.
“High school was hard in Puerto Rico because I was learning the language at the same time as I was taking classes,” he said. “But thanks to some pretty incredible teachers and hard work, I finished high school in three years.”
When he was not at school, he hung out. That’s when his father became worried.
“Hanging out in Puerto Rico, there’s a rough crowd,” Velazquez said. “My dad wanted me to stay away from the streets, so he enrolled me in a computer science course.”
The class made sense to Velazquez and the subject piqued his interest.
“When I was younger, I would work at my father’s grocery store in Brooklyn and play ‘Beat the Register’ to see if I could add up the contents of a customer’s cart faster than the register,” he said. “In this class I could see how to write that technology.”
“Velazquez, how many college credits do you have?”
“Sir, what is that?”
It was this exchange with a Navy lieutenant junior grade that put Velazquez—who did not have a college credit to his name—on the road to commissioning. After high school, Velazquez bounced between Puerto Rico and Brooklyn working odd jobs while looking for work in the computer industry. When nothing panned out, he talked to a Navy recruiter and enlisted in 1986, eventually becoming a sonar technician aboard the USS Miller.
The conversation started when then-Lt. j.g. Doug Maddox called Velazquez into his office, where he had a Mac computer.
“We’re talking 1987 here; how many people had that?” Velazquez said. “But I told him that I knew how to program and talked about it with him. He saw me spending time on the ship reading books. He thought I had potential to make more of myself, so he had me take the SAT.”
With a good score, he was subsequently selected for and attended the Broadened Opportunity Officer Selection and Training program in San Diego with other sailors and Marines who were seeking scholarships and a commission.
“I was really impressed with the Marines’ discipline and their mannerisms,” he said. “They were always the first ones in, last ones out, which is something I identified with, something that I took from my dad. I knew I wanted to be a Marine right then.”
That first-in-last-out attitude helped Velazquez finish college at Jacksonville University in less than three years with a degree in computer science. As a second lieutenant, he became a data systems officer.
It wouldn’t be long until Velazquez found himself in front of his own class.
After completing a master’s degree in computer science from the Naval Postgraduate School ahead of schedule and winning the outstanding thesis award for his work on encryption, Captain Velazquez got an assignment to teach. In 2000, he became an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“That was a dream,” he said. “I was teaching the top 10 percent of the nation.”
As an instructor, Velazquez applied himself just as he always had as a student—fully. Before his first day of teaching, he read his books cover to cover to anticipate any questions his students might have. He was ready.
“There’s nothing like watching the students grow and mentoring them as an officer,” he said. “The best part is when I see students these days. They’re at the rank of major and looking at getting promoted to lieutenant colonel.”
Velazquez made major and completed his career at Training and Education Command as the communications officer for the Technology Division, serving as the deputy director and director before retiring in 2008.
Mike O’Neal sees the sum total of Velazquez’s path from a computer class in Puerto Rico to the deputy modeling and simulations lead at Marine Corps Systems Command, a job he took in October 2013.
“He’s great because he understands computers top to bottom and back to front,” said O’Neal, the team lead for modeling and simulations. “The problem is that people know either the software or the hardware but he knows both and can put it into terms for people who aren’t as savvy.”
O’Neal has also seen Velazquez progress as a mentor, taking younger engineers under his wing and giving them guidance. And there’s still a Marine there—Velazquez challenged an engineering intern to a pull-up competition and won.
In all, O’Neal has only one complaint about Velazquez.
“He’s here later than I am,” he said. “I like to be the first one here and the last one out, but he’s usually here before me and leaving after me. The guy is a machine.”
Velazquez doesn’t see his father as much as he would like because the elder Velazquez still lives in Puerto Rico. They spent some time together last year stateside, attending a Yankees game as a family.
It is a bond the younger Velazquez cherishes.
“He did so much for us,” he said. “In Puerto Rico, my dad had to take care of all of us as well as my mom after working long hours. So, I try to do things for him when he’s here.”
To this day, his father’s lessons—and that first computer science course in Santurce—remain with Velazquez.
“[My father] never went to college but he always wanted me to learn and to work hard,” he said. “It’s a mystery how he found that course for me, but without that course and without my father, I don’t know where I’d be.”