Sandia LabNews

Cheston Bailon’s path to Sandia passed through Iraq


Caption: Cheston Bailon on patrol in Iraq in 2005 . . . and at Sandia today.	(Photo by Randy Montoya)
Cheston Bailon on patrol in Iraq in 2005 . . . and at Sandia today.    (Photo by Randy Montoya) 

A smile often crossed Cheston Bailon’s face as he sat poised for combat in the deserts of Iraq. His fellow Marines thought he was crazy.“What’s wrong with this guy?” Cheston (5635) laughs, recalling those moments. “He’s smiling in Iraq.”

Cheston’s smile came from memories of home, of growing up in Shiprock on the Navajo Reservation with his brother John. “We lived a rough life without many privileges,” he says. “But there was love. We worked in the corn fields with my dad in 100-degree heat. It was life for us. It prepared us to endure some of the hardships we would face in Iraq.”Cheston, 27, and John, 13 months older, were inseparable. “My story begins with my brother,”Cheston says. “I don’t know a day without John.He’s been with me every step of the way.”Their journey took the brothers, both Marines, to side-by-side duty in the Iraq War. They made it home in 2005, finished college, and went to work for Oracle Corp. in Virginia.Cheston recently took the big step of leaving Oracle, and John, to take a position at Sandia. He is the first hire under the Labs’ Wounded Warrior Career Program, which offers a variety of work options to combat-injured veterans.“I chose Sandia because I wanted to do more,” says Cheston, who prefers to keep the nature of his injuries private. “Its mentality appealed to me. And the welcome has been incredible. It feels like a big hug.”

Sense of responsibility

Cheston lived most of his life on the Navajo Reservation. His father, Francisco Bailon, a native of Santo Domingo Pueblo, retired this month from a long career as a Los Alamos National Laboratory machinist. His mother, Fannie Bailon, a Navajo, mixed work with being a stay-at-home mom while raising her four children, Cheston, John, Jodene, and Jessica. Francisco commuted from Shiprock to Los Alamos, and sometimes moved the family back and forth so he could be close to them. “My dad never sat us down and said how to be a man. He taught by example,” Cheston says. “We faced challenges and hardships and developed perseverance. Our mom gave us the nurturing side, to take care of people and empathize. It was a good combination. John and I were both motivated to develop ourselves.” Cheston and John did a year of high school at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. “I contemplated the idea of joining the military,” Cheston says. “I thought about it a long time. Looking back, I didn’t have one good reason — I had several.” His motivation revolved around responsibility. He wanted to be the person who stepped up so someone else didn’t have to. “I was young and able-bodied. I didn’t have a family depending on me,” he says. “Send me.” Cheston enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves before graduating from Shiprock High in 2002. John, who had completed a semester at Arizona State University, decided on the heels of 9/11 to join him. Fannie Bailon was reluctant to let both her boys go. “I told them I strongly disagreed. I was upset,” she says. “But it’s also important to support your children’s dreams. I just stepped aside.” Francisco Bailon says he and Fannie had to face their faith and trust that their boys would be safe. Cheston convinced his parents that he and John were in good hands. “I never felt afraid for my safety,” Cheston says. “I believe in the Native American ways. I always knew I’d be taken care of.” Cheston and John did boot camp together and were placed on reserve status in March 2003. Cheston enrolled at San Juan College and later joined John at ASU studying business. On Jan. 4, 2005, the brothers were activated for duty in Iraq. Cheston and John, both lance corporals, were deployed with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment as infantrymen. “We were in one of the most engaged units since Vietnam,” Cheston says. “We saw a lot of combat. ”Their battalion lost 48 Marines and sailors.“ I was losing my mind,” Fannie Bailon says. “I tried not to watch the news reports. My faith was really tested.” Cheston spent six months in Iraq and John seven. “John and I built an even stronger bond,” Cheston says. “Our band of brothers relationship was amplified because we really are brothers. We talked a lot about religion and the purpose of life. It helped us develop who we are.” The brothers were welcomed home to Shiprock with a traditional Native American ceremony to “shed the armor and take away the warrior mindset,” Cheston says. They re-enrolled in business courses at ASU and were discharged from the military in 2008. Cheston graduated in May 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. John earned a degree in sustainability.

A perfect fit

Cheston says his sense of responsibility did not end with his tour in Iraq. “After my service, I looked for other stages or platforms to continue my necessary responsibility to enrich my community,” he says. At ASU the Bailons were accepted into the second class of scholars of the Pat Tillman Foundation, named after the ASU graduate, National Football League player, and soldier who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.“Pat lived life to the fullest. He was engulfed in learning,” Cheston says. “The foundation carries on Pat’s legacy by helping people become leaders.” Working with a foundation mentor, Cheston and John developed a project to increase school retention rates for Native American students and ran the New York City Marathon on their behalf, raising $4,240 each. They heard about the Wounded Warrior program in an email from the Marine Corps while eating a mound of pasta after the race. They applied and were hired by Oracle, a Sandia partner in Wounded Warrior. In July 2011, Cheston was invited to Sandia. “I was blown away by the work being done here,” he says. “It was a perfect fit for me.” Sandia later offered a job and Cheston accepted, but the decision to leave John wasn’t easy. “We talked long and hard and decided that, maybe, if we have different experiences we can bring more to the conversation,” Cheston says. “We challenge each other to be better people.” Cheston started work in February as a cybersecurity technologist in Analytics and Cryptography. His manager, Curtis Johnson (5635), says his group has military customers and works on problems relevant to deployed personnel.“ Our admiration for the servicemen and women we work with made the Wounded Warrior program attractive to us,” Curtis says. “We are eager to do our part to help military personnel transition to productive civilian careers, and we’re excited to see how Cheston’s unique skills and experience benefit our team over time.” James Peery, director of Information Systems Analysis Center 5600 and Wounded Warrior’s executive champion, says Sandia will continue to hire through the program. “These men and women who have served honorably in our military and come back with sustained injuries have conviction,” he says. “They will run through a wall to get the job done. I have no doubt they will be incredibly successful at Sandia.” James says Cheston is someone who will run through the wall. “He takes on initiative,” James says. “He won’t let anything get in his way.” Perhaps the best description of Cheston comes from his parents, Francisco and Fannie Bailon, speaking together. “We are really proud of Cheston, of the way he thinks, talks, and walks his journey in life, and how his plan is well written out and what his goals are. His determination is totally amazing.”