CAMP KINSER, OKINAWA, Japan —Cpl. Lexus Martinez walks through the Camp Kinser Mess Hall with gusto that would make the casual observer think, “She owns the building.” The Brooklyn native makes eye contact with everyone in her path, greeting them confidently as she prepares to make the food that will be served for the day.
“I’ve realized that there are two ways that you can look at every situation,” she said, dropping gooey butter on top of a sizzling grill, her words cutting the sounds of steam whistling and oil popping. Her brown eyes twinkled as she thoughtfully looked off into the distance. “You can be miserable and have that attitude reflect on everyone around you, or you can see the good in things and have those around you be lifted up by your positive attitude.”
The 20-year old Marine was named the Marine Corps Installation Pacific Food Service Specialist of the Quarter March 8, 2018, on Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan. During the competition, Marines were judged on their ability to pass written and verbal tests highlighting their food service knowledge. Judges also graded food preparation, presentation and taste. Martinez won first place in all of the sections of the competition. She says she was determined to win.
“Last July, I competed in the competition. I came in third place. I told myself that that wouldn’t happen again.”
Martinez displays similar dedication in all aspects of her life. She has amassed hundreds of hours volunteering at United Service Organizations (USO) all across Okinawa, Japan. She serves pancakes for service members on weekends, sprinkling a touch of sugar and cinnamon in the batter whenever she can. She attends Sound of Praise Church, a local Japanese church, where she has learned Japanese, a skill that better helps her lead worship service, where she plays guitar and sings.
According to her, there is an important reason that she enjoys giving back to others.
“I’ve been given so much, I can’t help but pay it forward,” Martinez said. “It wasn’t always this way.”
Martinez is a survivor.
“My family has been through a lot,” she said, blinking back tears as she recounted moments from her childhood.
“Growing up, my family struggled financially. My mom had me when she was just 17-years old, then dropped out of high school to raise me. My biological father was barely around; whenever we would see him, he would bring danger with him. He was in trouble with the law a lot.”
Martinez recalled a moment when she was six-years old at a family gathering in Brooklyn. “Everyone was having a good time. We were playing and laughing, when a masked man crept into our backyard, waving a gun at my family and me.” Her voice became soft. “One of my uncles got shot. The man got away, and we found out later that the he came into the yard because he had something to do with my father, who was arrested shortly after for reasons no one knew.”
“That’s how life was for my family and me,” she admitted. “We were constantly watching out for danger, all while trying to make ends meet. It was tough.”
Martinez said that her mom, sister and two brothers were homeless at times, and had to rely on shelters, churches, and local school charities just to survive.
“It’s scary to think about the situation we were in. We got evicted a lot. Money was tight, and we would all try to do what we could. Sometimes, my family still couldn’t foot the bill.”
“I was in first grade relying on the free food that the school provided for day-to-day meals. I remember picking up cans off of the sidewalk at age seven to sell for cash. Sometimes, I only scrounged up enough cans to afford a piece of candy,” explained Martinez. “We sought help from the homeless shelters in and around the Brooklyn area, but that was risky.”
Martinez revealed why, for her family, it was sometimes safer to live on the street than at a shelter.
“Anything could have happened to us in the shelters. My mom, my sister and I were almost attacked so many times. My mom did everything she could to keep us and my brothers safe. I don’t know how she did it, but even when we were at our lowest point, my mom found a way to get us through.”
Her mother, Sherley Echevarria, a 37-year old native of Yauco, Puerto Rico, said she had no choice but to stay strong for her family.
“When my family would be faced with tough times, I always did whatever it took to get us through. I’ve worked in a bakery, at a J.C. Penny; I’ve been a maid in hotels around New York and worked at T-Mobile. Anything for my children.” said Echevarria, currently a Human Resources manager for NYC311, a New York information system that provides access to non-emergency city services and information about city government programs.
“When you have children, you drop everything to make sure they’re ok. My babies come before me.”
In 2012, the family faced another challenge when Hurricane Sandy, a Category-3 hurricane at its peak, swept through the east coast of the United States. The storm claimed 233 lives, caused massive flooding and over 65-billion dollars worth of damage, destroying homes and displacing families.
“Hurricane Sandy destroyed my family’s home. It was terrible. Lexus was 16. We had just bought a new house. We were proud of it. Things were going well for my family. We had just moved all of the brand-new furniture into the house. When the storm hit, the National Guard came into our neighborhood and evacuated everyone. We had to move to a small, one room apartment.”
According to Echevarria, it was eight months before they could move back into their house, and when they did, they had a lot of work to do.
“We had to start over. We picked things up and began again from scratch. Basic things like clothes and furniture had to be bought again. ”
Even though the family struggled, they had support from friends and family that helped them get through the toughest of times.
“We had help from everywhere,” the grateful mom said. “We had family helping us fix things up. We had churches volunteering their time, food and supplies. We even had complete strangers offering to help us out. I couldn’t be more appreciative. I think that although it was a disaster, it was still a blessing, because we were able to get support and start over.”
Her positive attitude is seen in her daughter, who said that although life was miserable for her and her family, it could’ve been worse.
The reflecting Marine sighed, her sad eyes contrasting her youthful face.
“At least we all stayed together,” she says. “So many times, you see families get affected by disaster and get split up. I am so thankful that I had my mom there through it all. Without her, my family and I would be history.”
Martinez was inspired by the determination that her mother displayed during the hurricane.
“My mother made me want to create a better life for myself and my family,” she said. “I was searching for ways to improve myself and those around me. On my 18th birthday, I swore in to the United States Marine Corps.”
The Marine Corps has helped reinforce the motivation that Martinez inherited from her mother. She said it gives her the opportunity to start giving back to a world full of people who helped her so much.
“The Corps has helped me figure out who I am as a person, and helped me prioritize my goals in life. Music and cooking is what helps me realize that things will always get better. That’s why I’m a food service specialist. Cooking, to me, is music. I like to create things that put a smile on somebody’s face, because when I needed it the most, people were there to help put a smile on mine.
She sat calmly in her room, on the edge of her heavily-blanketed bed. A guitar rested comfortably in her arms, while a ukulele perched on a stand nearby.
As she strummed her guitar and casually crooned her rendition of Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” her soulful voice echoed throughout her room and ricocheted off of the walls and the shelves. Her choice of song mirrored her personality; resilient.
“I play guitar every day,” Martinez said. “It’s always guitar and piano. When I’m working in the chow hall, I’m singing. If you see me happy, it’s because there is a song in my head.”
“I love giving back to this world,” she said. “When I volunteer, cook for someone, or even take a class, I always think about how far I’ve come. Looking back, I was always hungry and always tired. I never knew what the next day would bring. It was only because of people who cared about me that I’m still even alive today.”
She said she hopes to spread a message to people in rough situations that life can always get better, they just have to believe.
“If I could tell my younger self one thing, I would tell her that her struggles are only temporary and to push through. I would tell her to never give up hope.”
Martinez hopes to become a music teacher one day and plans to attend American Music and Dramatic Academy in New York following her time in the Marine Corps to earn a degree in music education.
“I want to inspire other to use music to create peace. I want to give a piece of my heart to the world. It’s a chain reaction,” she said. “A little love goes a long way. I’ve got a lot of love to give.”
Through it all, she said, she has one message for anyone going through tough times:
“Never give up. Your song can be used to inspire someone else like you once you make it out of your bad situation.”