It is evident why the other young men and women gravitate toward him. His energy is infectious, and his voice commands respect as he shouts out orders. He leads his fellow teammates through exercises, encouraging them as they struggle to complete the last pull-ups, sit ups or push-ups.
Eric Cruz-Pena, is not a Marine, but he plans to be one very soon. A leader within the Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program out of Recruiting Sub-station Raleigh, North Carolina, Cruz-Pena is a first generation American looking to give back to the country that gave his family so much.
“What better way to thank a country that has done so much for my family, than to serve them,” said Cruz-Pena.
Cruz-Pena was born May 20, 1997, in Durham, North Carolina. His father is from Mexico and his mother is from El Salvador.
Cruz-Pena’s father, Jacinto Cruz, moved to America as a 17-year-old. He worked in construction for most of his life and now works as a foreman at a local car dealership.
“He used to tell me that he was busting his butt so that one day I could work at a desk,” said Cruz-Pena.
Margarita Pena, Cruz-Pena’s mother, is a refugee from El Salvador who came to America as a refugee in 1991 during a civil war that raged there from 1979 to 1992. She would tell Cruz-Pena stories of the American helicopters dropping food and supplies to her family and local communities.
“It had a huge influence on me,” said Cruz-Pena. “The main reason I want to serve is because the government opened up their doors to my mother when she was stuck and let her come here.”
Cruz-Pena says these factors led him to the idea of military service when he was a freshman in high school. At first, he started looking into the Army, but after a few months and some research, he decided on the Marine Corps as the service for him.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do until I was in high school,” said Cruz-Pena. “I want to fight for something. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
At Enloe High School, he didn’t play many sports and said his grades were never the best, but he began developing his military interest and leadership skills by joining the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program his freshman year and again in this senior year.
He was the captain of the Raider team his senior year. JROTC raider teams compete in five mentally and physically challenging events consisting of a modified Army physical fitness test, the construction of a rope bridge, a five-kilometer road march, a litter carry and one optional event that could be anything from a shuttle run to a knot tying relay.
“I liked the Raider team because nothing was predictable,” said Cruz-Pena. “Everything could go right, or it could go really bad.”
He first met with his Marine Corps recruiter, Sgt. David L. Branch, a recruiter with RSS Raleigh and Hickory, North Carolina, native, in June of 2014.
He couldn’t sign the military contract right away though. He was only 17 years old at the time, which meant he needed parental consent. This proved to be more difficult than expected. His mother was worried for his safety, and he battled misinformation.
After several months of discussions, Cruz-Pena finally received his family blessing and entered the DEP in October 2014.
Since then, Cruz-Pena has worked hard to prepare himself for the rigors of Marine Corps Recruit Training. He says he works out nearly every day, a work ethic that earned him the spot of guide, a distinguished position in recruit platoons that designates him as the platoon’s leader, for the Sub-station.
“He’s the guide because he stands out,” said Branch. “When I need something done he’s the one that takes the initiative. Other poolees gravitate toward him because he’s a natural leader.”
Cruz-Pena graduated from Enloe High School on June 17, and is scheduled to leave for recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina on August 10. He says he plans on being the guide in his boot camp platoon also.
“I’m going to go down there and give it everything I have, and hopefully that’s enough to become guide,” said Cruz-Pena.
Branch says that he expects great things out of Cruz-Pena.
“I’m excited to see the transition to Marine,” said Branch. “As a recruiter, that’s really what you get to see is that transition from civilian to Marine.”
Cruz-Pena’s current contract is for a military occupational specialty in motor transportation. He says that he plans on retiring from the Marine Corps and that his ultimate goal is to join Marine Corps Special Operations Command, a component of the Special Operation Command that consists of Marines and whose primary missions are direct action, special reconnaissance and foreign internal defense.
“My father always said that if you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it right,” said Cruz-Pena. “This is what I was made for. This is what I was meant to do. I want to be as elite as possible. If there was something more elite, I would aim for that.”