FREEPORT (Tribune News Service) — Former Marine John L. Estrada had given up thinking he would ever be confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born.
Two-and-a-half years had passed since President Obama nominated him to the vacant post, but the Republican-led U.S. Senate refused to vote on any of the administration’s political appointments.
Estrada, 60, had already accomplished a lot in his life, and he was prepared to move on. So when he was confirmed by the Senate last month, he was surprised.
He had risen during his 34-year career in the military to the highest enlisted rank of sergeant major of the Marine Corps. Only 14 other Marines before him had attained that rank.
After his retirement in 2007, Estrada taught then-Sen. Obama how to salute and campaigned for him in both presidential elections. He served as a member of the Department of Defense’s Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, which was instrumental in pushing for women to have the right to hold any post in the military.
He was hired in the private sector to lead Lockheed Martin Training Solutions Inc., a subsidiary of the defense contracting corporation that trains the military’s pilots.
Then perhaps the biggest change: He met his future wife in 2012 – Dr. Elizabeth Cote Estrada, a native of Maine. They married in January 2014, moved to her home state together and now have twin 14-month-old daughters.
An unexpected turn of events
Estrada had testified twice as the ambassadorial nominee before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, once in 2014 and again last September. But nothing came of it. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential candidate, blocked the confirmation vote on his nomination.
“The administration’s term is coming to an end, so I didn’t give it much thought after that,” Estrada said of his stalled nomination. “We moved on with our lives.”
Then on Feb. 12, Cruz abruptly lifted his opposition and allowed the vote to go through. The Senate confirmed Estrada as U.S. ambassador to the nation of two islands in the Caribbean for the remaining nine months of Obama’s term.
Estrada and his wife sat for an interview Saturday afternoon at their Freeport home, each holding a toddler. They talked about their upcoming departure to Trinidad, their accomplished careers and how they fell in love.
“I’m honored. It’s very humbling,” Estrada said of his confirmation. “It’s a chance to continue making a difference and tell everyone about what’s so great about America. When I get out there, I’m representing all of America.”
It’s also an abrupt change. The couple, who had been renting since getting married, recently moved into their new house in Freeport.
Cote Estrada, 39, took a leave of absence this month from her position as a primary care physician at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. Estrada arranged a leave from Lockheed Martin, where he has worked for the past eight years.
Fortunately, they both said, Cote Estrada’s mother, Monica Cote, will be going to Trinidad with them to help care for the twins, Eva and Marie.
“It’s an opportunity to serve our nation again,” Estrada said. “I served it at the highest level in the military, and here’s an opportunity to serve it at a different level and be able to make an impact for our nation in many, many ways.”
Estrada said it would be “unprecedented” for him to retain the post as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago after the end of Obama’s second term, so he plans to begin a busy agenda as soon as he arrives. He is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday before Secretary of State John Kerry and then depart for Trinidad later in the month.
“For me,” his wife said, “it’s an opportunity to represent what’s best about America.”
Making most of opportunities
Estrada was born in Trinidad and emigrated to the United States at age 14. In what he described as an example of the American Dream come true, he enlisted early in the Marine Corps at 17 and celebrated his 18th birthday at boot camp on Parris Island in South Carolina.
“I came from a country that at the time was not too developed. I was a poor immigrant,” Estrada said. “I took advantage of the opportunities, and the Marine Corps I credit for my success. So I was given an opportunity to rise up to be the 15th sergeant major of the Marine Corps.”
Only one Marine holds the rank of sergeant major of the Marine Corps at any time. The Marine is chosen by the commandant of the Marine Corps and serves for four years as his adviser and representative in Washington, D.C., of all the enlisted Marines. Estrada held the post from 2003 to 2007.
“The first time I ever thought of it – my gosh, I could be the sergeant major of the Marine Corps – is when I got the phone call. We were sitting in Kuwait, for the invasion of Iraq. I got a phone call that I was one of five being considered,” Estrada said.
At the time of that call, Estrada held the lesser rank of sergeant major of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, the largest wing of the Marine Corps. As the war got underway, Estrada was confirmed by the commandant, and he spent the next four years between battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and advocating for the enlisted Marines in Washington.
“I didn’t think about it at all. … You just don’t say no to something like that. Marines are all about fighting and winning battles for our nation. And to be the sergeant major of the Marine Corps during a time of war, that’s why Marines come to serve,” he said. “I was planning to retire prior to the war, prior to the invasion. But I could not in good conscience retire as the nation was talking about going to war. I couldn’t let my Marines go to war without me. I was part of their leadership. So I decided I would not retire.”
Years later after Estrada did retire and began working for Lockheed Martin, he got a call in 2008 from Marine Corps headquarters telling him that the Obama campaign wanted his contact information to discuss Obama’s candidacy.
“I said, ‘Give it to him,’ ” Estrada recalled. “I have never heard of any presidential candidate ever having an interest in a senior enlisted service member, ever. It’s always the admiral or the generals.”
Estrada said he wanted first to know where Obama stood on the issues, but later agreed to speak on behalf of the campaign.
“What really stood out to me was his stance against the war,” Estrada said. “There were some issues I just didn’t agree with him on, but I like him. I said I could support this guy.”
Obama’s administration kept in contact with Estrada during the president’s first term and appointed Estrada to serve as a commissioner on the National Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees the national cemeteries abroad. And Estrada served as a national surrogate for Obama during his second presidential campaign.
Making impression at convention
It was during that campaign that he met his wife.
Cote Estrada worked as a consultant at the White House in 2011 and 2012 on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. She had been a resident physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston when she earned the White House fellowship.
Both she and Estrada attended the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Cote Estrada, although she is not affiliated with the party, was invited as a speaker about health care.
The couple first met at a cocktail party in passing, and then Cote Estrada was struck by her future husband at the convention when she saw him again.
“The next day, we were at the national convention and there were a whole litany of speakers, a bunch of national security folks, a bunch of military people,” Cote Estrada recalled.
She said that when the national security speakers had finished their presentations, most of the Army and Marine Corps members there stopped listening. But she noticed Estrada still paying close attention.
“Then Lilly Ledbetter talks about equal pay for women, and he’s like, ‘Yeah! Equal pay for women!’ And I’m like, who is this guy?” Cote Estrada said with a laugh. “I go down and I’m like hey, because we had met the night before. I wasn’t scamming on him. I just was like fascinated, who are you that you’re busting all my stereotypes?”
She said Estrada looked at her as she talked to him, turned to the military personnel to his right and said to them, “Move down!”
“All of the military folks stood up, moved down one and sat back down. And I sat there, and that was it,” Cote Estrada said. “We got engaged a year later and got married soon after. And he said that magical line, that it sounds like Maine is important to you; if you want to move there, I’ll go. And I was like, oh my God. And here he is, true to form.”
Estrada had been married before while he was in the Marine Corps, and he has four adult children from that marriage.
His youngest son, Mitchell Estrada, 20, graduated Feb. 12 from the Marine Corps boot camp. Estrada was there for the graduation at Parris Island, South Carolina, with all of his children.
©2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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