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STAFF SERGEANT ZHEILAND GONZALEZ
U.S. ARMY

“I’m kind of like a rebel,” says Zheilad Gonzalez, a 27-year-old staff sergeant for the United States Army. “Women aren’t supposed to do this job, they’re supposed to stay at home with the family.”

It’s these types of stereotypes that Gonzalez faced as she entered the Army. Not only was she facing the pressures of being a woman in the military, but she also faced the cultural pressures from her community and family.

Born in Juárez, Chihuahua Mexico, Gonzalez and her family moved to El Paso when she was just nine years old. Raised in a traditional Mexican household, her dream to join the Army was not something her family initially supported. “At first, my family didn’t want me to join. My father was so overprotective of me,” says the El Paso native, who became a U.S. citizen once she was in high school. It was at that time, upon turning 16 years old, that Gonzalez participated in the deferred enlistment program. But because she was underage, she needed her parents consent to enlist. They reluctantly agreed and signed the paperwork. “I knew I was making a big commitment,” she says. “For a whole year before I graduated, I knew what I was getting myself into.” A month after her high school graduation, Gonzalez was officially enrolled in the United States Army.

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“I was naïve though,” Gonzalez admits. “I knew a little of what to expect,” she says, having spent time talking to one of her high school teachers, Larry Mladek, a U.S. Army retired Major, Special Forces. “I had him for class and he would always talk to me about the Army and tell me all these stories. He’s the reason I joined the military,” Gonzalez says. “He was my role model.” Despite her feelings of readiness, Gonzalez wasn’t fully prepared for the experiences she would face. “It was definitely a culture shock,” she says about her first few months of military life. “‘Oh my god!’ I thought, ‘what did I just do?’”

As time moved forward, Gonzalez was pushed to her limits. “There were things I never knew I could do. I gained confidence, self-esteem and discipline. It was all a growing experience.”

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It was the time spent in her platoon that Gonzalez was faced with making the decision of what she wanted to do. “You’re competing against your whole basic training class,” Gonzalez says. “You’re taught that you have to do better than the rest. ‘I have to do better than her. I gotta beat her.’ The military gets you in that mentality. You figure out what you have to do for yourself. So once I finished my EMO training, I was really pushed to what I wanted to become. It became very competitive. There was no room for being weak,” says Gonzalez, who found that the split between males and females was something she couldn’t ignore. “You’re expected to keep up with the males,” she says. “But the hardest thing is having to prove to yourself. And then once the males give you that respect, everything falls into place. You win your territory.”

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Gonzalez not only won the respect from her male and female counterparts, during this time, she also won the heart of a fellow soldier. “Erick and I were both going through training to get the expert field medical badge, one of the hardest and most respected badges to obtain in the military. It’s both physical and mental,” Gonzalez explains. “We met in North Carolina, but he’s also from El Paso.” Returning back to the base after one of their competitions, Erick and Gonzalez hit it off. “He called me, but I still don’t know how he got my number. Or how he knew where I lived,” she recounts. “Let’s just say persistence really paid off.”

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In 2003, the couple was married. But their newlywed bliss was short-lived, as they were both deployed to Iraq in the same year. From February to May of that year, both Erick and Gonzalez went from Kuwait and convoyed out almost 100 miles close to Baghdad. “At the time, our unit did the largest convoy ever in history,” Gonzalez says. “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. There were hundreds of vehicles and we were driving for days. It seemed like forever,” Gonzalez remembers. “There’s so much history in Iraq,” she says. “We drove next to the Tigris, which appears in the Bible, and the Garden of Eden was between the rivers. It was amazing. When we got to Talluh Air Force Base, I remember sitting with my friend in a hangar looking out into the distance and seeing a huge building,” Gonzalez recounts. “I don’t know how far it was, but I remember asking ‘What do you think that is?’ Well it was the second oldest church in the world! I was wowed. It was made from dirt and it made me wonder how people did it back then. How did these people learn to make these buildings out of sand so many years ago? It was absolutely amazing.”

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During her time in Iraq, Gonzalez also drove by the Babylon ruins. “I remember when I was younger, my grandma gave me this book about the ruins of Babylon. The city used to be one of the biggest cities and now I was getting to drive through it. Now I’m here...I never thought, for once, in my life, that I would be here. You could see it all. When you drive from town to town with nothing in between. I thought about how the people there walked. How did they do it? They’re walking barefooted, cooking in the sun. I can’t even do it. It just makes you see a lot of things and puts things into perspective. It made me realize the purpose of me there. What I’m willing to put my life on the line for.”

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As part of an airborne unit, Gonzalez literally puts her life on the line. Qualified to jump out of an aircraft, Gonzalez has accomplished a feat so few females in the military are able to achieve. “Of 200 in my class, only 10 females graduated,” says Gonzalez. “You see the men that don’t make it, you see the women that don’t make it. And going there and getting my expert field medical badge and now being Air Assault qualified, I know it’s a big accomplishment for me.”

But it hasn’t been easy for Gonzalez, whose time, dedication and will have gotten her this far. When she was first learning to jump out of planes she had a terrible accident. “My parachute collapsed and I had a 50-foot free fall. I was paralyzed from the waist down,” recounts Gonzalez. “Doctors didn’t know what to tell me. It was a very long struggle for me.” For three months, Gonzalez was unable to move or feel anything. “Overcoming that injury was one of the hardest things for me. I didn’t know if I would get kicked out. I just knew there was no way this could beat me.” So Gonzalez relearned how to walk. And slowly graduated from crutches to cane. “I still have back problems and pain in my legs. But I don’t let it get to me.”

Through the injury and overcoming the stereotypes of being a female and Latina in the military, Gonzalez’s main source of motivation has been from the people she’s met while being in the Army. “I’ve been blessed to meet certain people,” she says. “What the Army stands for, its purpose, is what’s kept me here. I’ve reenlisted because I absolutely believe in what we do. Our mission, our school of life. Everything that I’ve learned so far, the values that I’ve learned from the military, has raised me to be who I am today.”

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As for what lies ahead for Gonzalez, she has one thing on her mind: her daughter. “I want to pass on to her what I’ve learned. I feel like that’s really important. I want her to learn to be independent. To know that she can do things she thought she could never do. I want her to learn to survive on her own. And,” she adds, “to stay away from the boys.”

— Story and Interview by: Myra Sandoval

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