African-Born Minnesota Guardsman reminisces on journey to the United States

February 14, 2021 (DJIBOUTI) — The moment Augustine Neto landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, he knew he was far from the tropical and warm climate of his birth home in Nairobi, Kenya. It was January 2011 and the dead of winter, and his connecting flight to Tampa, where he was first planning on settling, was grounded due to inclement weather.

“The flight ended up being grounded for three days straight,” Neto said. “At that time, I wasn’t prepared in terms of winter clothing as I was under the impression my final destination would be Tampa.”

Fortunately for Neto, he had friends living in Manhattan at the time who agreed to pick him up and save him from a three-day sleep-in at the airport.

“It was a rather interesting and memorable experience,” Neto said. “That was the welcome I got upon arrival. At the time it was frustrating, but now I look back and laugh at the experience.”

Eventually Neto made his way to Saint Paul in 2013, where he is now working as a supervisor of guest services at the Radisson Blu Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. He decided to enlist in the Minnesota National Guard in that same year with Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment out of Albert Lea. During his time in Minnesota, he has experienced his fair share of snowy days and long winter nights.

In the summer of 2020, Neto deployed as an infantryman with the Minnesota National Guard and Task Force Bayonet to the Horn of Africa, to the region of his birth and where his family roots began.

Task Force Bayonet, an element comprised of National Guard Soldiers from Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa, is spread out across East Africa. The primary mission of the task force is to provide base security, port security and a Quick Reaction Force throughout the region in a joint working environment with other U.S and foreign service branches.

For Neto, returning to the region represented an opportunity of a lifetime.

“Never did I imagine that I would serve and give back to my community there as a member of the biggest and strongest organization in the world.”

Neto, who holds a bachelor’s degree in international business and is currently pursuing a master’s in business administration in finance at Metropolitan State University, said that having the opportunity to engage with the local population in the Horn of Africa was encouraging.

“It is encouraging that we share the same ideals,” he said. “That is, peace, and social and economic stability within the region.”

Being fluent in English, Swahili, Arabic and having good command of other African languages also helped Neto in communicating with local nationals and contractors who frequent the post where he was stationed.

No stranger to military life, Neto comes from a family of service-minded individuals. Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers were World War II veterans who served in the Kenyan Defense Forces, which at the time, was under British protectorate. His father, Lazarus, was a career military member of the Kenyan Defense Forces and served for 32 years. When Neto decided to join the Minnesota National Guard, his elder brother James, who still resides in Kenya, said that it wasn’t much of a surprise to him, although when his little brother was a child, he didn’t think his hobby would become his future profession.

“For years, Augustine would ask dad to get him study materials about World War II and the Vietnam War, and he devoured war novels and fighter plane encyclopedias,” James said. “At that time, it didn’t occur to me what his hobby might lead to. He has followed in the footsteps of our dad, and grandparents who fought. I am very proud of his determination and also for him doing what he is passionate about.”

As to why he decided to join the military, Neto credits his decision to wanting to give back and serve his community. He also credits the military and the experiences he has had alongside his fellow Soldiers with helping him become the person he is today. As the only member of his family who has immigrated to the United States, Neto said one of his favorite aspects of being in the military, is the extended family he has gained.

“My fellow Soldiers feel like my family because of the camaraderie and diversity that is fostered within the ranks,” he said. “I belong to something greater than me as an individual.”

Neto’s parents who remain in Kenya, were born in the Western part of the country, near the shores of Lake Victoria. Since immigrating to the United States, he has attempted to return to Kenya every other year to visit them. Despite residing halfway around the world, Neto is able to speak with them regularly via phone call and social media, and keep them up to date on his new life in the United States and as a service member. His father, Lazarus, said that at first, he and his wife went through their own adjustment period in becoming military parents.

“As a parent, while my son was initially away acclimating to his new life as an American Soldier, his mom and I were also undergoing our own initiation period, adjusting to our new identities as military parents,” Lazarus said. “The shock of this new life is not absorbed more easily just because military life is all we’ve known, and we have the comforts of home and other family and friends around us.”

Lazarus said that, despite everything, seeing their son in uniform for the first time was a moment of great pride for them.

“We became so incredibly proud that we felt we would burst,” he said. “After his initial training he returned more complete, more confident, and more appreciative of his family. He is doing what he has always loved and that makes us even more proud as his parents.”

Although from time to time he misses his home and family in Kenya, Neto said he loves the diversity of the United States and the influences from around the world that can be found in American culture.

“The United States in one of the most culturally-diverse countries in the world,” he said. “Nearly every region of the world has influenced American culture, hence the reason it is often referred to as a ‘Melting pot.’”

While reflecting on his past and his first memory of coming to the United States, Neto said he is looking toward the future and his military career. During his off-duty time, Neto has been studying and preparing to transition between the enlisted side of the military to being an officer. He is currently attending Officer Candidate School in Alabama.

Story by Staff Sgt. Sirrina Martinez, Task Force Bayonet public affairs