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Health and Fitness

A Continued Promise

As a six year-old girl plays with wooden toys in a family dentist office in Colombia, she makes a decision. Some children dream of being an astronaut, a musician or president, but rarely do they commit to a promise made at six years old.

Cmdr. Angela Roldan-Whitaker, of Bogota, Colombia, explains her journey as an immigrant to the United States and eventually becoming a U.S. Navy General Dentist serving in Central America and the Caribbean during Continuing Promise 2018.

"I was in my first year of specialty school studying to become a lawyer like my father," said Roldan-Whitaker. "Some of my professors were at the Palace of Justice in Bogota the day Eme Dicenueve (M19) stormed the building and took them hostage. When we heard the building had exploded and crumbled, I thought the world around me was burning."

After a couple of years and the passing of her father, her mother received a visa for her and her two younger brothers but left her older brother behind. An accepted visa applicant can only bring dependents under the age of 21, which meant her older brother would have to wait for his mother to gain citizenship to sponsor him.

"My mother's decision to leave Colombia was extremely hard because most of my father's family disapproved of it," explains Roldan-Whitaker. "They didn't believe my mother could provide a living for a family of three because she didn't speak English or have a high school education."

In contrast, her mother was determined and believed in the possibility of a better life for her family in the United States. While Roldan-Whitaker's younger siblings went to school, she began her new life in the U.S. by flipping burgers and saving money for her family to survive.

While watching a commercial for the U.S. Army, Roldan-Whitaker decided to trade her spatulas and greasy uniform for a future in the armed services. Although the commercial may have been for the Army, her preference for the U.S. Navy uniforms in the recruiter's window convinced her to become a Sailor.

"When I first met the recruiter, I didn't speak enough English to pass the pre-test to join the Navy," said Roldan-Whitaker. "He told me to learn English and study for something called an ASVAB while I waited in the Delayed Entry Program."

A year later, in 1990, with a contract signed for Electrician's Mate, she packed her belongings for Orlando, Florida.

"After boot camp, they transferred me to my first ship, the destroyer tender USS Yosemite AD19 out of Mayport, Florida, and luckily that ship was decommissioning because at the time I was terrified of ships," said Roldan-Whitaker. "I asked this Panamanian Sailor on our ship who always had large books with him what he was doing?"

It turned out he was studying to retake his ASVAB to submit a package for the Enlisted Commissioning Program. Inspired by his example and searching for something more meaningful, she put together a package as well. However, after two years of waiting for news of acceptance, her initial contract was coming to an end.

"I had given everything I loved for this chance in the Navy, and it broke my heart leaving," said Roldan-Whitaker. "Because I didn't get selected, I got out and decided to return to school. I never thought I would have an opportunity to come back to the Navy."

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As a single parent attending San Diego State University and in her last year as a psychology major, she was assigned a semester with the Jacob's Health Care Center Senior Home.

"I did not want to work there because my grandma had lived in a nursing home and it was miserable," said Roldan-Whitaker. "Walking into the building reminded me of those times. On my first day, I was introduced to my two patients. One was an older man in a wheel chair and the other was an elderly woman who survived a concentration camp."

Within six hours, she was crying in her car, sure she would never complete the semester. However, because she had the determination of her mother, she got to know her patients. Come to find out the elder man in a wheelchair, Benji, was a retired dentist.

"My mouth dropped and I was like, 'that's what I've always wanted to do,'" said Roldan-Whitaker. "He was put there by his family because they thought he had dementia, but this 91-year-old man inspired me to return to my dream."

While walking the San Diego State campus one day, she learned about the Health Professional Scholarships. The program offered a full scholarship to dental school in return for four years active duty service.

"I went to tell Benji that day and explain how much he inspired me," said Roldan-Whitaker. "The nurse explained to me he passed away the night before. At that moment I realized, I really had to do this because it was all meant to be."

Within a few years, Roldan-Whitaker was commissioned as an Ensign into the U.S. Navy as a General Dentist in 2002.

"It's amazing how you think sometimes you're going to change somebody's life, and they end up changing yours," said Roldan-Whitaker. "This is comparable to the Continuing Promise mission, where the doctors thought we were changing the lives of our patients, but in reality a lot of us were impacted by them."

For example, there was an elderly man missing an eye who entered her dental examination room. When she asked how he was feeling, his response was "I'm blessed."

Responses like this from the Honduran and Guatemalan people were extremely humbling, said Roldan-Whitaker.

Although growing up in Colombia and leaving everything behind for a better life is only one chapter of Cmdr. Angela Roldan-Whitaker's success story, her determination learned from her mother and commitment to her six-year-old self provides a glimpse into her character. Her patients and coworkers all appreciate her compassion for life, people and dental care.

U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet has deployed a force to execute Continuing Promise to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian assistance, training engagements, and medical, dental, and veterinary support in an effort to show U.S. support and commitment to Central America and the Caribbean.