FORT KNOX, Ky., – Cadet Agnelo Lopes, Columbia State University, from 5th Regiment, Advanced Camp, decided at a young age that he was going to serve in the Army. At around 7 years old, Lopes had traveled two miles from Jersey City, New Jersey, for a school field trip to the Statue of Liberty.

The day of this field trip was September 11, 2001 — a day that changed Lopes’ life trajectory as well as the United States. 

“I was actually on a field trip to the Statue of Liberty when the twin towers went down,” Lopes said. “I always wanted to join the Army afterwards because we had some Soldiers come in on boats and get us from the island.” 

Lopes remembered the chaos of that day. He remembered the Soldiers rushing to get the children off the island, but what stood out the most was the aftermath.

Cadet Agnelo Lopes, Columbus State University, from 5th Regiment, Advanced Camp, practices the firing positions during preliminary marksmanship instruction at Fort Knox, Ky., June 25, 2023. Cadets practice the fundamentals of shooting such as stances, magazine changes and immediate remedial action to prepare them for weapons qualifications. | Photo by Jaden Whiteman, Ball State University, CST Public Affairs Office

“I just remember a lot of my friends and family being devastated from it,” Lopes said. “I remember, being from New Jersey, right across the river you can see the Statue of Liberty and New York City as a whole.”

Lopes had a childhood friend whose father passed away that day due to the attacks on the twin towers.

“That story hits home sometimes to this day,” Lopes said. “That’s one of the biggest things that I remember that my buddy, Ian, had lost his dad. I lost contact with him, but I hope he’s good out there.”

Lopes was around 7 years old at the time of the attacks and was impacted by the devastation he saw firsthand. The attack and loss within his community influenced Lopes to join the Army. 

“I remember vividly how much tragedy there was in the community and just sad faces,” Lopes said. “From what I could understand growing up, is that bad people came to do bad things to our home, and I just felt like I needed to go and protect those that can’t protect themselves.”

Lopes said he had been dreaming of serving for 11 years before he could finally attend basic training at the age of 18.

“I was 17 years old when I joined [the Army] in 2011,” Lopes said. “I didn’t go to basic training until 2012 when I turned 18. I’ve been in for 11 years now.”

Lopes was born and raised in New Jersey. Growing up, Lopes had no exposure to any weapons. Lopes first laid his hands on an M4 carbine and shot his first live rounds during basic training. 

“I followed everything my drill sergeants told me, and I was able to shoot sharpshooter on my first try at basic training,” Lopes said. “Then, I just progressively got better, but shooting for me is a hit or miss. I have good days and bad days, just like anything else in life.”

Lopes said being a Soldier was nothing like Lopes was prepared for.

“So, getting to basic training, I had a rude awakening, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I wanted to go through all this high-speed stuff,” Lopes said. “I wanted to be a Soldier until I actually started being a Soldier and doing Soldier things, and I was just like ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m made for this.’”

Lopes’ biggest regret about that time of his life was all the self-doubt.

“I had great leaders that I can name off the top of my head; great leaders that I have to thank for why I’m here,” Lopes said. “They pushed me [saying], ‘Hey you have the potential,’ and that’s what my leaders saw in me, all the potential. That’s why I got promoted; it was the leadership.”

Cadet Agnelo Lopes, Columbus State University, from 5th Regiment, Advanced Camp, places a dime on the end of the barrel during preliminary marksmanship instruction at Fort Knox, Ky., June 25, 2023. PMI is the first training event in the sequence of weapons qualifications.  | Photo by Jaden Whiteman, Ball State University, CST Public Affairs Office

When Lopes graduated from basic training, he was assigned his first duty station. He moved nearly 5,000 miles away to Schofield Barracks in Oahu, Hawaii.

“My first job was an automatic rifleman for 1-21 Gimlets [an infantry regiment],” Lopes said. “As time went by, I was able to get promoted pretty quickly to an E-5, a sergeant, and was a team leader there as well. Then, as a sergeant, I was also a squad leader.”

During his time at Schofield Barracks, Lopes met his future wife through mutual friends. She was born and raised in Kaneohe, Oahu. 

“It’s beautiful. I would say she is from the nicest part of the island,” Lopes said. “It just rains a lot, the water is a lot clearer on that side, and there are a lot of hikes there on that side of the island. It was such a tremendous blessing.”

After being stationed in Hawaii, Lopes and his wife relocated across the country to serve at Fort Drum, New York.

At Fort Drum, Lopes served as a squad leader and then as a weapons squad leader and platoon sergeant.

“My last assignment for Fort Drum was my favorite position,” Lopes said. “I was a weapon squad leader, the 240s [machine guns] are such a critical and vital asset to the platoon. It is the most casualty-inducing weapon in the platoon, so being able to control two or more gun teams, as well as an anti-armor team, was probably the best experience I think I’ve had in the Army.”

After being stationed at Fort Drum, Lopes was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan. 

“I had no desire to stay in the Army, but it was always that desire to serve for all the people that I’ve lost that I’ve known in Afghanistan, and Iraq and the neighborhood folks,” Lopes said. “I wanted to serve and go overseas, so I didn’t deploy until I was at my seven or eight-year mark.”

His deployment to Afghanistan changed Lopes’ perception of serving in the Army. 

“No matter where you are, or what you’re doing, or how bad your day is going, it’s all about the energy that people bring to the table that makes you steer away,” Lopes said. “I just wanted to do one contract and get out, but then, one contract turned into two which turned into three. Then, I started impacting other Soldiers that I had, and it just changed the game.”

During his deployment in Afghanistan, Lopes was an infantryman attached to a Special Forces group. 

“I got to experience a lot and learn from a lot of the Special Forces guys because their number one job is teaching,” Lopes said. “They taught us everything; they gave us all the knowledge of everything that they knew.”

When his deployment in Afghanistan was completed, Lopes was sent to Fort Moore, Georgia. 

There, Lopes worked in the 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade where he was an advisor. Lopes and his team were tasked with training and advising the national army of Columbia.

“A lot of what I know as an infantryman, I was able to share with my counterparts, the Columbian army,” Lopes said. “I was a senior operations advisor, so I planned all the training, all the meetings, and I made sure all the security and everything for the team was good to go.”

Cadet Agnelo Lopes, Columbus State University, from 5th Regiment, Advanced Camp, practices the firing positions during preliminary marksmanship instruction at Fort Knox, Ky., June 25, 2023. Cadets go through multiple stations to learn how their weapon functions. | Photo by Jaden Whiteman, Ball State University, CST Public Affairs Office

While serving in Georgia, Lopes was influenced to go back to school by one of his company commanders. Lopes then enrolled at CSU as a Green to Gold Cadet. The Army Green to Gold program allows active-duty enlisted Soldiers the opportunity to earn a commission as Army officers.

“He told me that I could go and get my masters as a Cadet because I already have my bachelor’s degree,” Lopes said. “He said that every lieutenant has a bachelor’s degree, so I just thought that was really appealing.”

Lopes is learning how to analyze, study, and write policies, along with learning how local, state, and federal government works for his master’s degree in public administration.

Lopes is one of the oldest members of his platoon at Cadet Summer Training. While Lopes has learned a lot during his first 11 years of serving in the Army, there is still more he can learn from his fellow Cadets. 

“At the end of the day, we’re here to do the same thing, so we have to have each other’s backs,” Lopes said. “We all come from different walks of life. I think that it is important that everybody always has something to bring to the table.”

Lopes is most excited to experience the field training exercises, known as FTX, with his fellow Cadets.

“A lot of true colors come out at the FTX,” Lopes said. “I am the type of person that when everybody’s down and not feeling it, I can maybe give a different perspective by also sharing my experiences. I try to give good energy back because we’re wet, maybe we’re cold, or maybe we’re tired, but here in a few hours or so, it’s not going to be the same.”

Lopes credits his support system, his wife and two kids, for his determination to continue to serve in the Army.

“My support system tells me, ‘Hey do what makes you happy and what you want to do,’” Lopes said. “I just want to keep going until the Army says I can’t anymore.”