PHOENIX, Ariz. (KSAZ) - It took two decades, but a Cuban refugee who is now an American citizen is finally reunited with the soldier who helped her family, after their escape from the Communist Caribbean nation.
"I don't, really, have words to describe what I am feeling right now," said Azany Nieves. "I just feel blessed."
Nieves' mother snuck her out of Cuba in a duffle bag, and they spent 10 months at Guantanamo Bay. At the naval base, Nieves, then eight years old, befriended Private First Class Chester Gardner, who was stationed there at the time, on a humanitarian mission.
Gardner now lives in Anthem, and Nieves finally got the chance to meet Gardner, for the first time since she left Guantanamo.
"I'm just so grateful right now," said Nieves. "I am so thankful."
During the mid-1990s, Cuban refugees wait at Guantanamo Bay, before they are relocated to the United States. Gardner was 18 when he was sent to the base.
"She had an infectious smile and laughter and just everything," said Gardner. "It helped us all get through."
After Nieves left the base, she and Gardner tried to exchange letters. Nieves saved one he wrote to her, shortly after she left the base.
"Someday, I will see you. When, I don't know," Nieves said, crying as she read the letter. "You be a good little girl, and stay out of trouble, OK? Love always, your friend and godfather, PFC Chester Gardner."
It took some digging by Nieves, but she was eventually able to track Gardner down, after he purchased a home in Anthem.
"As soon as I saw the picture, I knew exactly who it was," said Gardner. "It was just a blessing and an honor to meet her."
Years may have passed, but time only brought more gratitude.
"You showed that we can love others, even if they are not like us, even if they don't come from the same place or the same background," said Nieves. "This is what you did for me, and it has been a humbling experience to be in Guantanamo, and to have soldiers like you help us. You did more than serve. You loved us, and I am so grateful."