• ABOVE: Mountain Brook Junior High Spanish teacher and former Marine Laura Centeno shakes hands with President Bill Clinton in 1998. Centeno worked as a system administrator with Marine Helicopter Squadron One during her final years of active duty. 

    Nov. 10, 2020 — This school year is Laura Centeno’s eighth as a Spanish teacher at Mountain Brook Junior High and 18th as a full-time educator. 

    She began teaching English at a private school near her hometown, Chicago, after graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois in 2002. 

    “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I know that sounds cliche,” Centeno said. “But really, that’s the truth.”

    Unlike many teachers, Centeno’s education career is the second act of her adult life. Before teaching, she served 10 years as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, eight of them in active duty. 

    It was an experience she wouldn’t trade for anything. 

    “If you’re going to go into any branch of the service, you might as well go into the world’s finest,” Centeno said. “The uniform speaks volumes. It wasn’t the easiest branch of service, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to challenge myself.”

    Centeno is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. She enlisted in the Marines in 1991, one year after graduating high school, and served in active duty through 1999. 

    While stationed in three states during her time in the military, Centeno spent her final four years based in Quantico, Virginia, working as a system administrator with Marine Helicopter Squadron One. 

    That’s the helicopter responsible for transporting the president, which was then Bill Clinton. 

    “They have Air Force One, and then there’s Marine One. Marine One is who took President Clinton. Marine Two is who took the vice president,” Centeno said. “We were the remote aircraft, so if he needed to get out of some place in a hurry, we were the ones who came to swoop in and swoop out.”

    Centeno traveled domestically and internationally as part of Marine Helicopter Squadron One until her term of duty expired. 

    Before leaving the Marines to begin college, she took a picture with Clinton in the Oval Office. An autographed copy resides at her parents’ home in Illinois.

    “That’s my favorite picture of all time,” she said. “Regardless of the political party that anybody has affiliations with, I think, for me, being a girl from Chicago in the Oval Office, that’s what I was taking in more than I did anything else.”

    The Marines equipped Centeno with discipline, direction, and self-confidence that have molded her into the person she is today. 

    The experience also provided abiding relationships, as she met her husband, Donald, in the service and made lifelong friends. 

    “I like that we are all one team,” Centeno said. “Regardless of how we felt for each other, we always had each others’ back, always, and I miss that so much...it just meant a lot to me.”

    Centeno cherishes her time in the military and remembers fondly her peers who paid the ultimate price while serving their country. She thinks about them on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, and the day prior, Nov. 10, which is the U.S. Marine Corps’ birthday. 

    Like others who have served, Centeno knows that freedom is far from free. 

    “I think for the privileges and the freedoms that we continue to have, it’s so important to celebrate and honor the veterans who have helped maintain them,” she said. 

    Mountain Brook Schools salutes all of its veterans who work in the school system. A list of current employees is below:

    Brookwood Forest

    Allan Bice, U.S. Air Force 

    Aubrey Hicks, U.S. Army 

    Crestline Elementary

    Jay Hall, U.S. Navy

    Mountain Brook Elementary

    Brannon Aaron, U.S. Air Force: Air National Guard


    Laura Centeno, U.S. Marine Corps 

    DC Hall, U.S. Marine Corps 

    Gary Hays, U.S. Marine Corps 

    Paul Hnizdil, U.S. Marine Corps 


    Richard Knecht, U.S. Army 

    Mike Thorsen, U.S. Marine Corps 


    Ken Hyatt, U.S. Air Force

    Michael McCarrell, U.S. Army 

    Paul Whitfield, U.S. Army Reserves