GI gets goofy in the desert
March 3, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait — In this desert Army camp, there are brooding, taciturn soldiers who seem to bear the weight of the world like a 90-pound rucksack on their hunched shoulders.
Then there’s Candy.
Spc. Roberto Candelario, 25, tap-dances in desert boots on the plywood floor of his unit’s Tactical Operations Center. He warbles loudly under headphones in a tortured-frog singing voice until his tent mates silence him with a chorus of “Shut up, Candy!” He huddles intensely over his GameBoy in furious competition with his buddy, Spc. Santos Bazan.
In Candy’s world, war isn’t hell. It’s a comedy routine.
“I want to make everybody laugh, have a good time, so they don’t get bored,” Candelario said. “That’s the way I am.”
Candelario works as the driver for 1st Sgt. Homer Yates, 46, the command sergeant major for the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment from Illesheim, Germany.
Yates is quiet, gruff, an old-Army soldier from rural Ohio — yin to Candy’s yang. He inherited Candelario when the previous sergeant major retired in December, two months into the unit’s Kuwaiti tour.
“We thought about sending [Candy] back, but he kind of grows on you after a while,” Yates said with a dry smile. “We need morale-boosters.”
Candelario has been boosting morale since his childhood in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, where he liked being the class clown. Out of high school, he thought about the Army because his father had served in the Army Reserve.
He dabbled at college instead, and soon married his high-school sweetheart, Mayelline. He worked some, but he had no real plans for the future.
Then one day when he was 21 and a brand-new father, he was lying on the sofa at his folks’ house. His mother called excitedly from her office. She told him about a newspaper ad about interviews in nearby Ponce for jobs at Florida’s Disney World the next day.
So he showed up. The interviewer tried to steer him toward a custodian’s job.
“I said, ‘Do you have something to have fun?’” Candelario recalled. “He said, ‘You can be a character, but you have to audition.’”
So he came back. He and about 150 other interviewees were taught a dance.
“You have to memorize it,” Candelario said. “You have to go to a little room, and you have to do it by yourself.”
Apparently they liked him. He was one of 30 people offered jobs at Disney World. He left his wife and baby daughter, Nayelline, now 4, in Guayanilla, and moved in with a buddy who also had a job with Disney.
Candelario went to work at the Magic Kingdom as one of the costumed Disney characters who wanders around the park, greeting children and signing autographs. He played a variety of characters, but his favorite, by far, was Goofy.
“I liked Goofy, because I’m kind of a goof,” Candy admitted. “Goofy’s kind of crazy, and I just liked playing with the kids and the people.”
He stuck with Disney for about 18 months before returning to Puerto Rico and his family, who had stayed behind because his wife didn’t want to leave the island. Soon the couple added a son, Roberto Luis, 3, but Candy still had no real career plans. So his dad suggested the Army again.
“I was doing really nothing back at home,” Candelario recalled, “so he said, ‘Go on active duty, and take care of your children.’”
He joined, winding up in Army aviation in flight operations. He was assigned to the 2-6 Cavalry, keeping track of the flight time and duty hours for the unit’s Apache pilots.
Last fall, the squadron was ordered to Kuwait. Candelario volunteered for the job as the command sergeant major’s driver.
“Some people don’t like to drive, but I do,” he said.
Being a driver for a commander or command sergeant major means more than just navigating a Humvee. A driver lives in the same tent with the senior leaders and must anticipate every need. He or she makes sure the vehicle is gassed up and in good condition, stocked with Meals, Ready to Eat and water, and essentially acts as a personal assistant.
“He learns fast,” Yates said. “He takes you somewhere, and he can get you back. That’s important.”
At Camp Udairi, he shares a tent with not only the command sergeant major, but also the squadron commander, the executive officer and half-dozen or so pilots.
“At first I was kind of scared, staying with all these ranked people,” Candelario said. “[But] once you get to know them, it’s not all that bad.”
It also means best behavior.
“When you’re with enlisted guys, you can stay up late, play video games, dominoes,” he said. “When you’re here, you’ve got to follow the rules, be really good all the time.”
Still, as often as not he’s singing or doing wacky dances. One time he got the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Scott Thompson, to join him in a popular Puerto Rican dance, the one-legged chicken.
After his current duty wraps up this summer, Candelario is scheduled to move to Fort Campbell, Ky. He is hoping to switch Army jobs to become an X-ray technician. He’s still deciding whether he will re-enlist.
Whatever he does, he will do it Candy’s way.