John Learie Estrada, asked by President Barack Obama's staff what he'd like to do in his (the president's) last term starting 2013, did not even think about the job he's doing now, United States ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. He asked for a post at the Pentagon.
"I would like to be an Assistant Secretary or Secretary in the Department of Defense, my comfort zone", was the gist of what Estrada relayed back to the president's staff.
"President sent the word back. He didn't think that that was a good enough reward for the hard work that I did for him for two campaigns, and he (asked Estrada through his staff), would I entertain the idea of being the US ambassador back to the country of my birth?"
So began a new career for Estrada, a recently retired marine sergeant major, who had campaigned hard for Obama's election and re-election in 2008 and 2012.
As a surrogate, Estrada worked with key Obama people such as Susan Rice, national security adviser and former ambassador to the United Nations, and the son of Vice President Joe Biden, Beau Biden, who died recently. The senate was to stall his nomination from 2013 to 2016 before finally approving it last February. The 60-year-old Estrada took up his post in Port-of-Spain last month, accompanied by his wife Dr Elizabeth Cote Estrada, 39, and their young twin daughters.
The Obama campaigns
Estrada is fit looking, getting up early every day to run three to five miles and work out with weights. Only a few wisps of white on his shaven head betray his threescore years. He looks younger, and has the size and physical appearance of a welterweight boxer. He smiles and laughs easily, and has a friendly, relaxed demeanour. While we do the photoshoot before the interview, we make small talk about trouble spots (his, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, and mine, Haiti.) Like many marines, he can't resist taking a dig at the (supposedly less tough) army, saying it stands for "ain't ready to be a marine yet."
As is the case with Estrada, US ambassadors are not always career diplomats.
Presidents typically reward high-level friends, donors, business people, associates and surrogates with ambassador posts. The current ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of president John F Kennedy, was an early endorser of then senator Barack Obama in 2008.
Her backing stunned Obama's rival Hillary Clinton, and was one of the early signs that the junior senator from Illinois could pull in the kind of heavyweight support he needed to give his candidacy lift-off and legitimacy.
Obama had similarly reached out to Estrada, a decorated sergeant major and one of the few senior black officers in the US armed forces, for his endorsement. Obama, Estrada said, was extraordinarily well-prepared. Not only did he know about Trinidad and Tobago and could talk knowledgeably about the place, he knew about Estrada too.
"I was stunned", he said.
The US armed forces are very conservative organisations, and their members mostly vote Republican.
Throwing his lot behind the young senator, who many in the military did not think experienced enough to be their Commander-in-Chief, over his Republican rival and decorated ex-Navy veteran John McCain, was a lonely field to hoe for Estrada. Some of the blowback was hostile, none more than when he introduced candidate Obama at a rally in heavily military South Carolina.
According to the Marine Corps Times newspaper, some fellow marines accused him of politicising an organisation that was meant to be apolitical.
"This is a trend that a lot of us are not really happy with in terms of military officers getting out and throwing themselves into a campaign," Jim Currie, a professor of National Security Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC was quoted as scolding Estrada.
"You don't want an officer corps that is seen as a Democratic officer corps or a Republican officer corps."
That didn't deter him. He found much common philosophical ground with candidate Obama.
"Right after I left the Marine Corps, after I retired, I had misgivings about the war. I did not like it, I felt it was wrong. We had Saddam Hussein pretty much boxed in, and I felt that it was going to be mistake, that it was going to be a long war."
Early years and homecoming
Estrada left T&T at 14, moving with his family to Washington DC. He takes his middle name from the legendary Trinidad and Tobago cricketer Learie Constantine, and he lived up to it by playing cricket in Trinidad as a child.
It was in Washington as a young man in the early '70s that his fascination with the US military began. He'd make frequent inquiries about joining the military to a local recruitment centre. Eventually, he got in.
The Vietnam war ended two years after he enlisted, but after a spell in the Philippines he did serve in Kuwait in 1991–America's first engagement of Saddam Hussein after his invasion–and in Iraq in 2003 when they finished the job by removing him.
Sergeant major is a unique office in the US military. Only one officer can hold it at a time, and it is the ninth and highest-enlisted rank. Only 18 men have held the post, and Estrada was the 15th. It is a considerable achievement.
The new ambassador has dived into his role, and has not been shy about using his personal story and the appeal of his roots to advance his policy goals.
He's spent a lot of time with schoolchildren.
"I hope to influence these kids, especially the at-risk youth, to turn away from the social pressures they are feeling to have to do drugs, or steal or kill people to get ahead", he said.
"I'm trying to let them know there are other ways, and I'm trying to use myself, as I'm referred to here as a son of the soil, trying to use myself as an example, coming out of Laventille (to show that) you can be successful."
"But I don't just want to focus on myself. I tell them look around your country here. You have some great leaders and mentors, in your classrooms, your public service and in the private sector–and I challenge these kids to step up and be leaders."
In a policy agenda surprisingly heavy on social issues, he told me that some of the issues he cares deeply about are human rights in general, women's rights, and those of the LGBTI community and fighting back against domestic violence.
"That touched me when I was growing up as a kid.
"I personally witnessed domestic violence to a close family member. As a young kid...I probably was about ten, maybe 12 years old. That stuck with me at that young age, because I remember my brother and I having to try to weigh in.
"I have very strong feelings on it."
"For girls, I said you had your first female prime minister. Think of how many people probably told her that she couldn't be", he chuckles.
"They can do it right here. They don't have to run to the United States."
He realises the contradiction in that message from him–the Trini boy who left a poor neighbourhood for America, in order to make it big.
"My circumstances were different. My message is–stay focused, work hard, education is knowledge and power.
"If they do that, they can reach their dreams."
He's clearly enjoying the job. It will be all change in Washington next January with a new cast at the State Department and White House.
How do you think you'll get along with President Donald Trump, I teased.
He laughs, stumbles momentarily, then says, "if there's a President Trump, we'll get along fine."