The Wallflower

Confidence doesn’t come easy to everyone. Sometimes it takes four legs to remind you how to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s what Rachel Higuera learned as she traveled to Japan as a Master-at-Arms in the Navy.

Home Life

Rachel grew up in Burbank, California with her two brothers and younger sister. Her parents worked very hard to give them a comfortable, family-oriented life. The Higueras spent a lot of time together strengthening their bonds and affection for one another.

“I feel like since I was so close with my family, I ended up being very shy. I was really afraid to branch out because I was very comfortable in the lifestyle that we had and so in turn, I kind of grew up very reserved,” Rachel said.

Rachel always tried to make friends, but she was self-conscious and worried how she was perceived by others. As a child, she remembers wanting to interact with her peers in club activities—from acting in the school play, to singing a solo in the school choir. However, Rachel’s fears of rejection held her back. Never the “skinny girl” or the “athletic girl”, Rachel also felt insecure about her appearance, which made her retreat further into her shell. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to spend time with others, but she feared how they would treat her if she tried.

“I didn’t want people to look at me, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.”

Growing Up

From preschool through tenth grade, Rachel attended a small, private school. As a high school junior,  she transferred to a public school and immediately felt out of place. After a lifetime of sharing a classroom with the same peers, she was thrust into the hallways of a new, overwhelming environment. Filled with a variety of personalities and backgrounds, this world paled in comparison to the tight confines the private school she knew so well.

Senior year was the most difficult. Rachel desperately wanted to fit in and make friends. She wanted to do all the things that her peers were doing, but her insecurities held her back. This wasn’t the life she had imagined—Rachel knew she had to make a change.

After graduation, Rachel began working at a family-owned barbecue restaurant with a group of friends. She was hired as a hostess and started earning her own money, which allowed her to explore new activities. Soon, the group was spending more time together, eventually going to spin classes every morning. Thus began Rachel’s journey toward a healthier lifestyle.

“…It really sparked my interest with the way that I felt after the spin classes. I loved getting to do things with my girlfriends that… was beneficial to my health. I just grabbed that and ran with it and fell headfirst in love with fitness. And then our group grew bigger and we started, you know, we had maybe 10 girls to 15 girls going to spin class every morning at 6:00 AM.”

Many of Rachel’s friends were interested in serving the community and helping people through occupations in law enforcement and firefighting. Soon, Rachel’s newfound love for fitness and community involvement would take her down the same road.

“I love making people smile and making people laugh, making people feel loved and comfortable and treating people the way that I would want them to make me feel. In law enforcement, you see so many community outreach opportunities and it’s just getting to really help and serve other people and other strangers.”

Joining the Navy

Rachel applied to police departments around the Los Angeles area. She went on interview after interview, searching for the program that fit her best. As she progressed in the process with several agencies, she impressed herself with her own abilities for the first time in her life. Especially when it came to the physical challenges required in law enforcement academy. Standing just 5’3”, Rachel was still able to easily compete with candidates twice her size, which made her stand out in the program.

“I’m a small girl compared to these big men who lift weights and have big muscles and can jump over hurdles and climb walls and stuff like that. I thought to myself, I don’t know if I’m gonna make this but I’m gonna try my best to get there. The whole way I was just true to myself, and all I can be is the best Rachel I can be.”

Rachel’s confidence grew with every stage. She was thrilled to receive a conditional offer for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office police academy. Soon, she began studying and exercising with her classmates, preparing for the next steps in the program.

Raised in a devoutly Catholic home, Rachel woke up one day to a “calling from God” which would change the course of her life forever. While she loved the idea of becoming a police officer, her faith was directing her toward a career in the military. Though she was convinced she could never cut it in the armed forces, Rachel’s friends urged her to give it a second thought.

She soon discovered the Navy had a job for military police, specifically K-9 handlers, and decided to take a chance on herself.

Surely this self-confessed introvert could never make it as a Sailor. She ran through every reason why she shouldn’t try, but kept wanting to give it a second chance. Soon, she was sitting in a recruiter’s office planning a career as a Master-at-Arms.

Rachel’s recruiter was honest—he couldn’t guarantee her a spot as a K-9 handler. As one of the most competitive positions within the Master-at-Arms community, K-9 handlers are handpicked from the best of the best. Still, Rachel selected the job with a newfound confidence in herself.

“I think joining the Navy, I was 24 years old which to some people would seem a little late in the game, but I think God had me exactly where He wanted me,” said Rachel.

A few months later, Rachel was at Navy Boot Camp in Great Lakes, IL. Within the blink of an eye, her quiet life had been transformed by a calling from God to do something bigger. She graduated eight weeks later and left for “A” School to train as a military police officer.

“It’s really made it easy in the Navy because you do have so many different types of people. You have people from all over the world and some people from different countries. So, um, and now living in a different country, it’s made it easier for me to branch out, kind of understand, uh, a new culture and, um, you know, the way that people live here. So I really look at it as a blessing more than anything.”

A Defining Moment

Mid-way through Master-at-Arms “A” School, an instructor offered Rachel and her classmates the opportunity they had all been waiting for.

“We have one billet to be a K-9 handler. Who wants it?” she asked.

In unison, every hand went up.

The instructor had the students form a line. She paced up and down, asking each of them why they were the best candidates for the job. Rachel was selected for the final five. Just one formal board interview stood in between her and the job of her dreams.

Instantly, “Shy Rachel” emerged. But, she knew if she wanted the job, she had to be bold. And bold, she was.

“I really put myself out there and put all my cards on the table. The most rewarding and the coolest part about my story is knowing that they chose me, Rachel, they thought that I was the best candidate for this job. I’d never had that feeling of being accepted before.”

Journey to Japan

Rachel’s first assignment as a K-9 handler was at Naval Station Atsugi in Japan.

Far away from the twinkling lights of Los Angeles, Japan was even further removed from the world she knew. Rachel feared leaving friends and family behind, but was excited by the prospect of discovering a new culture in Japan.

Rachel attended the AOB classes, offered by the Navy to ease new Sailors into the culture as opposed to throwing them in without any background.

“They did a really good job here on base of guiding us in the right direction. So when we do go out in town, we are being respectful of the Japanese culture and of the people that live here,” said Rachel.

While apprehensive about a country she knew little about, the experience has been nothing short of life-changing. In Japan, Rachel found an independence she craved for most of her life. Immediately after arriving there, she was riding the Tokyo subway by herself, eating sea urchin with Sailors from around the country, visiting temples that transported her through Japanese heritage and attending cultural festivals like Bon Odori, an annual event at Naval Base Atsugi.

“Sometimes to find yourself, you have to be thrown into an uncomfortable situation. For me, it was Japan. Being thousands of miles away from home is hard, but it’s made me really look at myself and the person I want to be in life,” said Rachel.

Meeting Chucky

Every Master-at-Arms Military Working Dog (MWD) Handler is paired with their own Belgian Malinois.

They form an inseparable bond—trusting one another implicitly.

But when Rachel first met her dog, Chucky, she was disappointed. He was shy and lethargic, lacking the motivation you’d expect from an MWD. In many ways, she saw herself in Chucky and realized she had to be his motivation for success. Rachel put in extra hours with Chucky, trying to bring him out of his shell—taking him on long walks, buying pack after pack of tennis balls and cooing to him in silly voices.

“Chucky was a lot like me. He wasn’t naturally outgoing and I had to work hard to get him to open up. Didn’t realize it at first, but the process of doing this was way more beneficial to me than it was to him. It made me see an entirely new perspective on life. You have to give people a chance, you have to be patient and realized that some things take longer to blossom than others,” said Rachel.

Rachel soon realized that Chucky was making her more confident, more daring and less reserved. She was working long hours, staying in shape and opening up to a dog who wasn’t naturally gregarious. After several months, Rachel and Chucky had developed a bond so strong they shared every moment together.

“He’s honestly my best friend in the world. This experience has been so much more fulfilling because of Chucky,” said Rachel.

Just over a year into her life in Japan, Rachel is flourishing in a way she could never have dreamed. Gone are the days where she felt like an outsider. Gone are the 75 pounds she struggled to lose in high school. Gone is the girl who lacked confidence in herself. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy for Rachel, but one thing is certain—Rachel has found her purpose.

What Is A Master-at-Arms?

In any large community like the Navy, Law Enforcement & Security are essential. Whether executing crime prevention programs or carrying out anti-terrorism measures, the Sailors working in the law enforcement and security field of America’s Navy are trained to deal with any situation.

Security professionals in America’s Navy – also known as Masters-at-Arms (MAs) provide safety and security aboard Navy installations and ships. They’re equipped with the latest law enforcement tools and techniques for maximum effectiveness.

The Law Enforcement and Security community provides a wide range of critical services to every part of the Navy. As a Master-at-Arms you may provide security and physical protection for servicemembers; train fellow Sailors in security and shore patrol duties; serve as a security advisor for your squadron; assist in crowd control and riot prevention; operate military prisons (brigs) aboard ships and on shore; handle and care for dogs that detect narcotics and explosives; conduct waterborne security patrol and interdiction operations; provide protective service to high ranking dignitaries and government officials; conduct preliminary investigations into Uniform Code of Military Justice violations; or Conduct crime prevention programs.

As an enlisted Sailor working in law enforcement, you will have the chance to work in a number of environments. You can expect to work at shore stations in the United States and overseas, aboard ships or as part of a maritime security squadron. In short, your assignments could take you anywhere in the world.