June 2012. This month’s featured veteran is Marilyn Gonzalez Colon. This is her unedited story, in her own words.
Pictured below are SGT Marilyn Gonzalez on the right and her daughter SPC Jessica Pedraza on the left, both deployed to Baghdad in 2010.
My name is Marilyn Gonzalez Colon and I was born and raised in New York. I am a mother of 5, a wife and an American soldier. I was a teen mom so everything I did in my life, I did late, except having my kids of course. My mom is an amazing woman; she was a single mom raising 8 kids by herself at the time. She had a very full house so when I became pregnant; it was my time to leave. I dropped out of high school to become a full time mom. As the years passed, I knew I needed to do something different. I needed my kids to be strong, independent and successful in life so that meant I needed to change. I went back to school at the age of 25 and received my G.E.D soon after; I enrolled at Boricua College and walked out with an Associate Degree in Liberal Arts. Although I was furthering my education, I felt unhappy, and didn’t feel that college life was for me.
A few years later, my kids were attending an after school Cadet Program called Victory. I became interested in the program because it had to do with the military. All my life I dreamed of being a soldier in the United States Army and thought I had put that dream to rest when I became a mom early in life. At the age of 34, one day before my 35th birthday, with the support of my husband Angel Gonzalez and my kids I joined the Army National Guard. Yes I was 35 when I went into basic training. Just before I came back home from training, my husband and kids had moved to Rockland, MA which is where we still remain today. We had decided it was time to move somewhere different, somewhere that my kids could further their education without all the distractions that were surrounding them back in N.Y. I needed to provide a better life and figured we needed to start fresh. Since then, 4 out of my 5 kids have graduated High School and continue to do well. Graduating High School may not be a big deal to a lot of people, but for me it was important since not too many of us in my family had ever graduated High School. I felt it was time to break that cycle and I am so proud and blessed that my kids have accomplished something I had not.
Anyhow, I have been in the Army now for almost 10 years and still remain active in the Army National Guard as an 88m Motor Transportation Operator. I hold the rank of SGT and I am a Combat Veteran. I recently came home from a tour of duty in Iraq/Kuwait on Christmas Eve 2010. This tour was difficult for me in so many ways. My oldest daughter Angela Lopez had just given birth to my first grandchild Jeniva Rose 2 weeks before I deployed. Not only was I leaving my husband, my kids and granddaughter behind for a year, but I was taking one with me. Yes, my daughter Spc Jessica Pedraza, 19 at the time, was headed to Iraq with me. We were both in the same Unit and had the same MOS. She had reclassified as an 88m just so she could deploy with me. At first I thought it would be comforting because I would have family there. But once we had boots on ground, my feelings changed rather quickly. Not only was I afraid for myself, I was afraid for her. I knew I couldn’t protect her there especially because this was not a familiar situation or environment to me; it was definitely out of my comfort level. Driving through the streets of Iraq proved challenging. Every day was a constant fear and I often prayed that we wouldn’t get hit by an I.E.D or anything else they may have had for us waiting by the roads we frequently traveled. I knew she was also taking those roads so I always had this uneasy feeling. We both experienced different things out there and came back home with a different bond. Not only did we have a family bond, we had a soldier’s bond. Coming home safe alongside my daughter was my number one priority, but now that we are home, I still feel like I am still in the fight. Every day is a fight and a struggle to get back to that person I left before this deployment.
To begin with, after returning from a theater of combat operations even the simple things I used to do were now tough. Communicating with my friends wasn’t the same, there was something missing. It was a connection that I had left at home when I deployed, but I had changed so the methods I used to use didn’t work anymore. Sure the government has programs for us that we’re told about at our “Yellow Ribbon” ceremony which is sort of a “welcome home, you made it” meeting, more or less. What I found with the military classes and meetings is that like everything else in the military, it’s structured so that the majority of us clam up and keep our feelings to ourselves for fear of either being committed or even worse, thrown out if we’re still serving even in a part-time capacity, like the National Guard.
Through the Yellow Ribbon Ceremony I found This Non Profit Organization called Project New Hope. It stood out from the rest because it wasn’t really related to the military in a sense. It was created by a Veteran for Veterans. So I gave it a shot. My first introduction to Project New Hope I felt so open, so comfortable with the staff and fellow attendees. There I found I could be open and say exactly what was on my mind to anyone because they understood me. The majority of whom I spoke to had not only served but had also seen combat and “got it” when I spoke about the loneliness, the frustration and depression I was feeling. This includes combat veterans from Korea, Vietnam and every conflicts since, with the majority of us either serving in Iraq or Afghanistan but regardless, WE CONNECTED. Being able to open up with other combat veterans from any era I found was the key. The key was in me and in all of us having the same problems and we could help each other. I feel so at ease when in a group of veterans and I feel I’m very lucky to have found help. Not everyone has seen or lived through my experiences but overall the structure is trustworthy in that what you say stays within the group and once you speak you feel better because there’s finally someone there to listen and offer support. It’s like my new found family and I will do anything I can to help another because that’s how it works and I get it. I look forward to seeing not only the crew there but new veterans that have mustered up the courage to step up and find out what Project New Hope is all about. I speak about Project New Hope freely to other combat veterans as often as I can. We all gave our best for our country when called on to do so and with that said I hope PNH grows to enable more vets to get the help they need be it for PTSD, TBI, Stress and or Anger Management or basically for whatever is ailing them brought on by the rigors of combat. Your exact ailment may not be a topic of a retreat but with this group of professionals guiding you, you will be put on the right track to getting the help you need.
When I was asked by the You Are Strong! Founder, Xiomara A. Sosa to write my story she suggested that I read through all of the other “Featured Veterans” stories on her website for inspiration. When I did, I found that I could relate to a lot of them. Although I was inspired it also made me look at myself and think of where I want to be. I’m still early in the recovery and readjustment phase, but I am steadfast in knowing I am moving slowly in that direction. As a veteran suffering with PTSD, Sexual Trauma and other issues, I want to be able to help others like me in any way that I can. For now, I am only an ear for someone who needs to be heard, and a voice for someone who can’t find the words.