AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFNS) --
By the age of 3, he found himself in and out of group housing and foster homes in New York City. His father had abandoned him before birth and his mother was addicted to drugs.
Staff Sgt. Lamar Valentina, a 31st Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment accountability element supervisor, didn't have what most people refer to as a customarily-pleasant childhood, but he hasn't let that hold him back from achieving his goals.
Taking a look at Valentina, you see a man with poise and self-esteem, a genuine smile and kindness for everyone he meets. Those who know him describe him as driven but entertaining and funny. You could never tell that his upbringing was filled with instability.
The young staff sergeant furrows his brow, sighs and reflects upon the beginning of his roller coaster of a life. It began with the state taking him from his mother and placing him in a foster home at just 3 years old. From there, he would move in and out of four different foster homes until the age of 9, which caused him to incur thoughts of inadequacy and resentment, he said.
"Growing up I felt a lot of anger," Valentina said. "I felt unwanted by my mom and father, although I never met him. But, with my mom I felt that I wasn't a priority and that drugs were more important to her than I was.
"I was discouraged -- moving around to random families. Foster care is scary -- never knowing what to expect when I arrived at a new place," Valentina added. "I bounced around to different foster homes and group homes because my mom wouldn't give up her parenting rights. I could have been adopted at about 3 years old. My mom would rather see me be raised by complete strangers than to sign over her rights so I could live with a family. It was a pride thing - to have someone else raise her child and then take credit, she wouldn't stand for it."
At the age of 9, Valentina's mother regained custody of him and he was taken out of New York state's Office of Children and Families Services system. Albeit, the reunion was short-lived, and Valentina was once again taken away from his mother at 14 due to his mother's unrelenting reliance on drug-related addictions and placed in a group home for teenagers in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., he said.
This institution was different, the teenagers were there predominantly for juvenile disciplinary actions. Valentina said he was a pariah, stripped of his freedoms and watched with a close eye.
"The other people there, I felt different from them," Valentina said. "They had different personalities with different reasons for being there. A lot of them were placed there by the court system for being juveniles or committing crimes. I was there because I didn't have a family."
During the six months he lived in the group home, the staff took notice of his unique character and realized he was in an extraordinary circumstance. The assistant director, Ed Gamble, became a mentor, ensuring Valentina followed his moral compass while at the home.
"He took me under his wing, mentored me to make sure that I didn't go down the wrong path and hang out with the wrong crowd while I was there," Valentina said. "I still talk to him to this day."
That's when Valentina's life took a turn for the better. He was sent to a group home in Queens, N.Y., where he was given more freedom and his first taste of a family environment through his best friend, Rob, and his family.
"I was 16 in my sophomore year of high school in Queens," Valentina said. "I met my best friend and his family became my family. Growing up, the biggest thing I felt was the lack of family and the lack of structure. I was always searching to feel wanted and to feel a part of something. At the time, Rob's family did that for me."
Valentina still reminisces of the days spent with Rob and his family, reflecting upon memories of playing video games and basketball until it came time to graduate from high school. After high school, he moved out of the group home and enrolled in criminal justice studies at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, N.Y. However, he said something was missing.
Valentina admits to constantly pushing and striving to be successful and looking for a challenge. So, when an Air Force recruiter came to his classroom during his sophomore year in college, he said he was intrigued to say the least.
"A man walked into our classroom wearing his dress blues," Valentina said. "That's the first thing that caught my attention. The Air Force's motto at the time was 'Do Something Amazing.' That's all I wanted."
His decision was made. After finishing his associate's degree in 2007, Valentina enlisted and found his new home in the Air Force. In Valentina's seven-year career, he has been through multiple deployments to Iraq and a year-long tour in Afghanistan. He said the camaraderie felt in combat environments was a new experience for him.
"When I deployed to Afghanistan for a year, it was an eye-opening experience," Valentina said. "I had to trust people with my life -- that was something I had never done before. I found my family in the Air Force, and anyone who's worn the uniform understands that the people around you are your brothers. Especially in deployed locations like I was, you grow incredibly close to the people around you."
Valentina said he was used to going through most of his life alone. So when Rob's sister, Jenny, the closest sister he ever had was killed in a car accident in 2013, Valentina expected to push through on his own like he had done numerous times in the past -- his new family wouldn't allow it.
"My whole work section was checking in on me asking if I was alright and walking me through it," Valentina said. "That's been the same thing throughout my experience in the military, no matter where or who it is, the military family treats me with kindness.
"Everyone is concerned and involved, and everyone, from what I see, genuinely cares."
Valentina attributes any success or turnaround in his life to mentors he's attempted to emulate along the way.
"I love the phrase, 'It takes a village to raise a child,'" Valentina said. "Because for me, without parents growing up, it all came down to finding a mentor I wanted to be like so I didn't do the wrong things."
Now, Valentina still craves mentorship, choosing to emulate the highest enlisted leader in his squadron, Chief Master Sgt. William Harrington, the 31st LRS chief enlisted manager.
"Just the way he speaks and carries himself and how he's so open to sharing his experiences in the military," Valentina said. "He gives me hope of meeting my goals of making rank and pushes me to want to do better. It took a whole village of people to get me where I am today."
Harrington was encouraged by Valentina's story and wishes to use it as a teaching tool for the younger generation of Airmen.
"Staff Sgt. Valentina and I speak often and his personal story is an inspiration for me and others," Harrington said. "We often hear about what's wrong with young people, but he is a prime example of what a person can do when they put their mind, heart and soul into succeeding. He had every reason to quit as a young man, however, he was able to persevere despite his upbringing. His story should be heard by all. He's a walking example of resilience."
Although Valentina's past was a struggle, he said he wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I don't look at my hardships as things that bring me down, I look at them as life lessons, something that built my character," Valentina said. "There's no way you get a smooth road, you're always going to hit bumps along the way but it's all about how you push through. I don't forget where I came from or what I went through because it makes me work harder and strive for more because I want more."
Valentina's aid his resentment toward his mother has gradually shifted to feelings of gratitude throughout his career in the Air Force.
"I don't have any resentment toward my mom," Valentina said. "I thank her for putting me through that because it made me the man I am today. I like the saying 'God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.' Ironically, the fact that I bounced around to so many families during my childhood and was never anywhere for more than a year helped with adjusting to military life. So I just continue to push through. I don't give up."