Growing up in China, Lixin Li always dreamed he might join the army one day. He never imagined it would be the U.S. Army.
Now a 47-year-old sergeant in the Oklahoma National Guard, Li’s journey to Fort Hood’s Warrior Transition Brigade has been a long one filled with surprises.
“As a little boy I always wanted to be a soldier,” he said in heavily accented, self-taught English. But at 16 years old, instead of joining the much more age restricted Chinese army, he went to teaching school.
Li spent 18 years teaching in China. During that time, he met and fell in love with an American woman visiting as part of a cultural exchange group. In January 2005, he moved to Oklahoma to be with her and they married soon after.
Li said he knew he would struggle upon his move to America, but he basically had to begin his education all over again. First he earned a GED and then began college.
“One day, I knocked on the door of a recruiting office on my way home from school,” Li said.
He had know idea if he was still within the Army’s age limits at that time, but he was just barely under the bar. In 2008, he entered boot camp as a truck driver and turned 42 on the first day.
“In China, I don’t even drive,” he said. “I’d ride a bicycle to work 10 miles daily.”
A self-described “son of the world,” Li said it isn’t strange for him to serve a country he’s not yet a citizen of. He recently re-enlisted, and hopes to one day become an American citizen.
“It’s the freedom,” he said of what he enjoys about America.
Volunteered to deploy
To gain experience as a soldier, Li volunteered to deploy with his National Guard unit, the 1245th Transportation Company. A month shy of returning home, he was injured as part of an ammo abatement team, nearly losing his left ring finger when it was slammed in the door of an armored Humvee.
In September, he joined Fort Hood’s WTB while his finger heals from several surgeries. Sitting in the dayroom of the brigade’s barracks, he said he’s appreciative of all the opportunities afforded him as a soldier.
“For six months I wore no rank,” Li said. “In four years I make E-5. I think that’s quite a surprise, too. I have a trait that when I do something I try to do the best I can. Everything I do, I do the best.”
Capt. Laveeta Springer, the brigade’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander, said it’s refreshing to have someone as dedicated and hard-working as Li in the company.
“He is always accountable as a soldier, always doing what he’s supposed to be doing,” she said.
“He’s worked really hard to do the right things, even when no one is looking. It’s always refreshing to see that in a soldier. He takes his professionalism very seriously.”
Now that his finger is nearly healed, Li said he is looking forward to getting back to some of his favorite hobbies, such as barefoot running.
More importantly, he plans to finish his bachelor’s degree and reunite with his 20-year-old daughter, Susan Li, who moved to Oklahoma one month before he deployed. Father and daughter have spent most of their lives separated from each other, and he said it’s time for them to spend time together.
“I never regret my choices,” Li said. “These surprise and unexpected events sometimes shape our journey. I will never stop surprising myself.”
Rose L. Thayer is the military editor for the Killeen Daily Herald. She joined the paper in February 2011 as a health and military reporter. View her complete profile Here. You can contact Rose L. Thayer at email@example.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.