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The Black Hawk helicopter is a four-bladed, two engine, versatile Army fighting machine—and for Commander Marisol Chalas, it’s her pride and joy.
“Thanks to my persistence, I have touched the sky,” she recalls a statement she holds dear to her heart.
From the first sound of the Black Hawk’s engines, one can feel the reverberations of Chalas’s success story. A-37 year-old Dominican American, and the nation's first Latina National Guard Black Hawk pilot, Chalas has lived her life from the cockpit of this legendary helicopter.
Her twenty-year aviation career in the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard have given her a breadth of experience that includes flying soldiers and equipment to and from the battle field during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003-2004, to flying four star generals, ambassadors, and Congressmen.
“I am a people person,” Chalas said. “One of the things I like about the Black Hawk is that you are always interacting with the troops.”
Born in 1973 in Bani, Dominican Republic, Chalas recalls her family’s first steps to the United States. In 1978, her father moved to Boston, in search of a better life. He and Chalas’ mother got their green cards in 1980. It wasn’t until Chalas was nine, in 1982, that she and her three younger sisters were reunited with them in America.
“It was cold. I remember running to my mom,” she emotionally recalled. “I remember seeing the snow. We just thought we were in Santo Domingo.”
Her parents are and continue to be her role models. They each worked two jobs at a Hilton hotel, at guest services and housekeeping, while also splitting time at a local Massachusetts shoe factory.
"We learned very young that in order to be successful you have to work hard at it, nothing is handed to you."
Chalas actually took a year off after a tough freshman year at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, but returned with a vengeance. Working up to 48 hours on her weekends as a security guard just to be able to meet costs, Chalas pursued her school work and landed a job at General Electric upon graduation. She found herself at aviation school in Georgia after GE transferred her. Still in the reserves, she finally found her path towards flying.
She graduated as the best cadet in leadership, and received an academic merit for physical fitness from the Military Institute in Georgia. She also was recognized as the best in her class at the Ft. Rucker Army Aviation School. She is one of the few Latinas who is certified to fly the Black Hawk helicopters and has received recognition and numerous decorations.
"When I was in flight school, there were over 3,000 pilots that flew Black Hawks. Out of those, there were 120 females," Chalas recalled.
Needless to say, Chalas soon became commander of an entire fleet of Army Reserve Black Hawk helicopters, in charge of 16 pilots and eight aircraft.
For Chalas, one experience humbly stands out. On a six-month trip in 2006 with the New Horizons Humanitarian missions (sponsored by the U.S. Army), Chalas was able to help in the efforts to construct three rural schools and four clinics in and nearby Barahona, Dominican Republic.
"Some people thought we were there to invade Haiti," she said. "That was the big rumor around town."
Chalas was given the chance to return home.
“I served as a pilot, and a translator on the ground for doctors and engineers,” she said.
It was here where she experienced one of the most memorable flyovers of her life.
"I still get goosebumps," she said. "When I flew over Bani, it was very emotional and moving. That's where I was born and went to elementary school. And I came back 15 years later as an American soldier to provide services to the Dominican Republic."
It was because of her work throughout her 20 years of service that she was honored by Project Mujer as one of the 100 Dominican Females who serve as leading examples for Latina women everywhere.
Today, Chalas has an MBA, is on military leave of absence from Booz Allen, while serving as a Commander for Aviation Company 7-158th AVN for the US Army Reserves, all while maintaining her aviation currency, which requires her to fly 48 hours every six months.
Chalas transferred to the Reserves in 2008 after serving 18 years in the National Guard.
As for quitting? Yeah, it's not in the plans. Chalas said she'll serve and fly until it's no longer fun.
Her life is still very much in flight, and for those women still looking to take off, she has this advice: "Take a step back, reevaluate your life, and don't be afraid to rely on friends and mentors."
"Always reach out to people because you'll be surprised how many people are there to assist you," she said. "Reach back and remember where you came from."
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Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.