With tears in his eyes, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Dominique Pierre paused before recounting a 30-year journey that led him to his greatest life lesson.
"You never know where people come from," he said. "That's why you have to respect them."
The lesson took him from his birthplace on a remote island of Haiti to the streets of Miami and finally to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, where he currently serves with the Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron 4, ensuring the safety of Djibouti's ports and surrounding waters. He said the journey not only brought him pain and sorrow, but also pride and accomplishment.
Pierre was born in 1982 on Ile de la Tortue, a small island north of the Haitian mainland with a population of approximately 25,000 residents. Pierre's father died when he was just four years old. He says he has brothers and sisters in Tortue, but doesn't know most of them.
As a child, Pierre suffered through abuse and neglect. The pain it caused drove him to run away from home multiple times.
"It was rough and I just wanted to get out of there," Pierre said.
In 1994, Pierre got the chance to live in Miami, Florida, leaving his homeland behind. It was a new life for him - or so he thought. The hardship continued in America, forcing Pierre, by then a high school student, to sleep in a broken down car. Finding life a struggle even in the United States, he wrote a letter home to his mother describing the hardship he was now facing in his new country. A distant cousin wrote back with bad news. Pierre's mother had died and his letter arrived in Tortue on the day of his mother's burial.
At that point it seemed like a life of hardship was his fate, but then a simple act of kindness during his high school years turned his life around. In his junior year, he found a $50 bill on the floor at his church. Instead of pocketing the much-needed cash, he asked those around him if anyone had lost their money. The man to whom the $50 belonged was touched by this young man's act of kindness. He invited Pierre to live with him and his family. It was there Pierre said he finally felt like he belonged and that people cared for him.
"Everything started turning around and I knew I could be something," Pierre said.
After high school, Pierre made the most of the changes in his life. He spent two and a half years at Miami Dade College, earning an associate degree in computer programming. It was there he met his wife, Cece. At the time, CeCe was dealing with her own struggles in life and the two found comfort with each other, Pierre said.
"She made me forget about my problems and my struggles because she needed someone there for her," Pierre said. "[It was] as if she was sent from God."
The two wed in 2008.
After college, Pierre began a 6-year career working for a soda bottling company in Miami. Despite having a degree, he started at the bottom of the ladder. He believed that reward came only through hard work, even refusing promotions that he felt he did not earn. He stayed with the company through 2008.
Then in 2009, he shared with his wife a dream he held ever since September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, Pierre dreamed of serving his country - where he attained citizenship in 2006 - in the U.S. Navy.
"If I don't do it now, it will be too late," Pierre told Cece.
Cece gave her husband her blessing and in 2009 Pierre joined the U.S. Navy.
Success in the Navy came through hard work and determination, he said. Pierre was proud to be a boatswain's mate in Portsmouth, Va. It seemed to Pierre he finally escaped the hardships that travelled with him from Haiti to Miami. He had finally broken free of the chains of his past.
But his homeland came calling again on Jan. 10, 2010, when the earth in Haiti shook.
When a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit near Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, many U.S. military members deployed to help with medical needs, rescue efforts and evacuations. Pierre's supervisor in Virginia came to him, concerned.
"He said he needed to send me, but didn't know if I would be able to focus since I am from Haiti," Pierre said. "I told him I could do it. I needed to go back home."
When he landed in Haiti, Pierre said his past flashed before his eyes. Despite the earthquake hitting nearly 200 miles from where he grew up, he still felt a commitment to helping his people.
"They were amazed that there was someone who was Haitian helping them," Pierre said. While his trip home was temporary, the memories stayed with him long after his return to the United States.
Now, 18 years after first coming to America, and two years since returning to his homeland, Pierre serves on the other side of the world at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, with MSRON 4, ensuring vital personnel and assets at sea are kept safe and secure.
"He is such a great guy and such a hard worker," said U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class LeMarro Mason, who has worked with Pierre for two years. "There is literally not one bad thing I can say about him."
Pierre walks the streets of Camp Lemonnier and greets everyone he knows with a hug and a smile. When he's not patrolling the shores of Djibouti, he volunteers his time at a baby orphanage near Camp Lemonnier.
Many of Pierre's friends and co-workers are unaware of the struggles he faced in life, which is why he thinks it is important to respect everyone--because you never know where people have come from.