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By NEPLO Public Affairs
As the only Navy Reserve Sailor on the All Navy Wrestling team, Yeoman 3rd Class Leandro “Leo” Rodriguez Rodriguez knows that it takes determination and hard work to continually earn your spot on any high-performing team. From first joining the Navy to winning a medal at the Armed Forces tournament for wrestling, that’s the mindset that he found has made success possible in all aspects of his life.
Rodriguez is currently assigned as a Navy Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer, or NEPLO, in Navy Region Northwest. NEPLOs surge to American communities as crisis responders. When an area is hit with a natural disaster like a tornado, hurricane or earthquake, NEPLOs are on call to help.
Beginning in June 2022, Rodriguez became one of the few enlisted Sailors in a community largely consisting of officers, but that fact has not deterred him.
“I was worried at first about being one of the few enlisted NEPLOs," said Rodriguez. "I was curious if I could keep up with the officers. But I really have enjoyed working as part of NEPLO. I appreciate everything they do and everything they stand for, and all the people in the NEPLO community have been extremely helpful.”
His commanding officer, Capt. Allen Kunkle, has been impressed with Rodriguez’s resilience.
“You can really see the work ethic he has," said Kunkle "His attitude is that the problems and obstacles he faces are simply challenges to overcome. He doesn’t let those things pin him down. He just keeps pressing forward.”
Rodriguez learned that resilience in all aspects of his life. Whether in his Navy uniform or in a wrestling singlet, he leans on the same general principles.
“When it gets challenging as a NEPLO, I reset myself, take my time, focus on my strengths, and stick with those strengths,” he said.
So far, that approach has paid off with a steep learning curve and valuable professional development.
“During a Defense Support of Civil Authorities exercise in Portland, Oregon, for example, there was so much that was new to me," said Rodriguez. "There were so many acronyms, it was like learning a new language. I learned a lot. But it was amazing. I took notes the whole time. It helped me get a better understanding of the whole NEPLO unit.”
Rodriguez, along with his brother and sister, were raised by a single father. When Rodriguez was six years old, his father brought the family from the Dominican Republic to the United States in search of a better future.
Growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, Rodriguez found that better future on the wrestling mats. He began wrestling at 12 years old after initially being attracted to the grueling workouts. He stuck with it because, to him, the sport reflects the struggles in everyday life.
“Everything I do, I see the parallels in wrestling," said Rodriuez. "If you want to succeed in whatever you are doing, you can’t give up on it. That’s what wrestling is all about to me. That’s what life is about.”
But when Rodriguez turned 18, he faced a dilemma. He wanted to stay in his adopted country. He chose to enlist in the Navy to earn his citizenship. And he hoped it would also give him an opportunity to continue to wrestle.
“It was a big decision. I was the first in my family to serve,” said Rodriguez.
First, he needed to get a green card in order to enlist. The entire process took him a year. When he succeeded and entered the Navy as an undesignated airman in 2016, that hard work began to pay off.
“I still speak to my recruiter to this day. We’re very close," said Rodriguez. "He helped me a lot. He guided me toward finding a way to wrestle in the Navy, and I took a leap of faith. So once I got to my first command, HM-15 in Norfolk, I applied to the All Navy Wrestling team.”
The path to where he is now wasn’t easy. While striking for the Aviation Mechanics Mate (AD) rate on sea duty at HM-15, Rodriguez had to work hard to get his shot at a spot on the team.
“You’re taking care of work first. But you have to stay in shape, keep up with the sport. My application was rejected twice.”
After Rodriguez earned all his qualifications in the squadron, his command leadership supported his application. He was selected for tryouts and made the cut. He’s now in his third year on the All-Navy Wrestling team.
Rodriguez earned his first medal, a silver in the 67 kg class of Greco-Roman, at the Armed Forces Wrestling Championship tournament at Kitsap, Washington in February 2023.
He said the tournament taught him what it takes to win at this level.
“It was a very humbling experience. Very humbling," began Rodriguez. "You’re always going to be wrestling an Olympian at some point. But you’re there to compete. Someone is going to get their hand raised. It’s up to you whether it will be your hand. Even if you’re not the strongest or not the smartest or not the most experienced, it doesn’t mean you can’t win.”
Even though the wrestlers compete individually, the tournament is a team competition. Rodriguez doesn’t lose sight of the shared victories he is working towards with his teammates.
“I never forget my end goal," he said. "I want to do the best I can to make the Navy wrestling team successful.”
Rodriguez knows that his teammates on his other team, the NEPLO community, helps make it possible for him to represent the Navy as a wrestler.
“I want to thank everyone in the NEPLO community," said Rodriguez. "They have been so supportive. They keep up with me. They check in with me. The support system has been amazing.”
After spending six years on active duty, Rodriguez transitioned to the Navy Reserve to pursue a college degree using the benefits of the GI Bill.
Rodriguez says he valued his time on active duty.
“I learned the ropes. Met good people," he said. "I loved the energy in the workplace.”
Now, as a full-time aerospace engineering student at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Rodriguez is also an Olympic hopeful working to earn a spot on the wrestling team representing the U.S.
Based on his record of success so far, it would be wise to not bet against him earning his spot on another team representing the nation.