You might be surprised at what motivated some of America’s future soldiers to enlist.
Though the benefits of joining the U.S. Army are fairly common knowledge (the G.I. Bill comes to mind), some people still feel uneasy learning their loved ones want to enlist. Those nervous about the Army might have the misconception that they’re going to be shipped out with a gun in hand to the battlefield of a foreign country. U.S. Army Recruiters do their best to make clear that the Army offers over 150 career options that allow individuals to serve their country, from desk jobs like human resources and logistics to lesser-known opportunities in the fields of medicine, culinary arts, and even music.
“In many ways, the U.S. Army is not unlike other organizations,” says Sergeant First Class Armando Flores, who introduced me to several “future soldiers” at a training day held at La Copa Ranch on March 18, 2017. “You have support behind the scenes that you are likely not aware of, but everyone is doing a vital job.”
According to the young men and women I interviewed, those jobs and the training the Army provides to its recruits rank high among the reasons for enlisting, but a desire to serve their country and make their family proud is ever-prevalent.
Johnny Ayala, 18, is a senior at Edcouch Elsa H.S. who has been enlisted since the summer of his junior year. It’s his second time coming to the ranch that hosts the training day. Starting at around 8 a.m., the day’s activities take the form of a competition between local recruiting offices. “It’s a big bragging rights kind of thing,” he says. “The last one was a few months ago, and it was pretty challenging. We won the written test last time, but there’s also an obstacle course and a physical fitness challenge.”
The Army has always been a part of Ayala’s life; he remembers being impressed as a child when his dad, who is still serving, came home in uniform. “I always wanted to join. I would see pictures of my mom and dad in basic training in New York – they were both 88M’s, Motor Transport Operators,” he says. “That pride that I see in my mom and dad when they’re in uniform looks nice; I like that.”
Ayala says he would feel proud to wear the same uniform, and anticipates that his younger brother will have similar sentiments about serving when the time comes. “He’s a freshman in high school. He says he doesn’t want to join the Army, but he just doesn’t know it yet,” says Ayala with a grin.
Though he’s following in his parents’ footsteps by enlisting, Ayala says he has chosen to go down the track of a 42 Alpha, or human resources specialist. “I decided that based off my test scores and what choices they had for me. Before that, I didn’t have an idea what I wanted to do,” says Ayala. “I knew that when I joined they would help me decide.”
Ayala explains that after basic training, future soldiers go through AIT and are then assigned to a unit. “Wherever you get assigned, that’s where you serve. Wherever I go, I’ll be doing HR.” Ayala says he isn’t nervous about being sent anywhere, and is actually excited by the prospect of seeing more of the world. “I want to go to Germany. Everyone says it’s nice.”
Jamie Trevino, 21, is currently a junior at UTRGV studying biology, but she has big plans for her career in the Army. “I always wanted to be a nurse; I have many family members that are nurses. I’ve always leaned towards the medical field so I became a biology major to be in a better position to apply to medical school. That’s my goal. But my ultimate goal is to be an Army physician. It’s going to take a while but it’ll be worth it to be able to save others.”
She says that becoming an Army physician takes about 11 years of training, but she’s putting the work into it and is ready to stick it out. “It’s the best of both worlds because you’re defending your country and saving innocent people from inevitable human injuries, illnesses and sicknesses,” says Trevino.
When she applied to college she already knew she wanted to enlist. “I wanted to join the Army because it means justice; we’re fighting the person who is the enemy because they want to hurt innocent people. I believe in protecting and defending others, and I’d love to do that for my country. Now, in two months I’m finally going to get to go to basic, and I’m really excited!”
Trevino planned to take the ROTC pathway through college, but after speaking to an Army recruiter she changed the plan: go to Army, then reserves, then medical school. “That way I would already be on reserves and already know how to be a soldier with Army values,” says Trevino. She has a head start on that, coming from a military family.
“It’s kind of a family tradition,” she says. “My dad always taught us the values: to be a hard worker; that sleep is important, but so is getting the work done; pretty much to have your priorities straight.”
In addition to her dad, two of her brothers served in the Army. She says that when they enlisted, her brothers were in their early 20’s like she is now, and today one is a nurse. Without a doubt, she looks up to them. “We’re on the right path,” says Trevino. “One of my brothers was in Iraq when they told him they were going to need him there longer, and he said that was fine. He was waiting to get married and his wife waited for him. As for me, I’m not seeing anyone so I don’t have to worry about distractions. Definitely not! I have my plans and I don’t want them to be derailed.”
With her determination, there is no doubt that she will achieve all her goals. I commended her for her service but had to ask if she was at all nervous about being among the approximately 17 percent of women enlisted.
“I have 6 brothers and of my 11 family members, I’m the youngest even among my sisters – I’ve always been the little sister. So joining the Army, I’m totally ready to hang out with the soldiers, both male and female, and be their ‘little sister,’” she says, laughing. “I mean, we’re not going to be strangers. When you’re in the Army, you become a family.”
Having just spoken to Trevino, I was curious what some of the male future soldiers thought about changes to military guidelines in 2015 that allowed women to take direct combat assignments.
“Now the Army is open to everybody, and I think that’s absolutely great,” says Christian Guerra, 18. “It’s awesome to see women in high ranks doing the same job as men. In previous years it was seen as a bit of a man’s duty to join, but now women can serve just the same and it builds a mutual respect between everybody.”
Guerra enlisted with the Army Reserves in his senior year of high school. He explains that after the three months of basic training he’ll be doing job training for 6-9 months, and after that he’ll be in the reserves so he can go home and start his education right then and there, or get a job. “Reserves is like a part time thing; you make the choice to go active duty or reserves when you enlist,” says Guerra. “If you’re on reserves, I think the minimum contract is 6 years. It’s one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year that you go back. Since I’m doing reserves, I plan to return to Laredo and get my nursing degree. After that it’s still up in the air about doing my 20 years in the Army so I can retire from it, but it’s looking pretty bright that I’ll stay with it for the long haul.”
He says he started thinking about joining the Army as a kid but cemented the decision as a sophomore. “I had family and family friends in the Army, and I could see that they were making a living for themselves and they enjoyed what they were doing. I had a cousin who was a soldier who had just gotten back from a tour. He told me about it and got me interested. I was a bit young, but once I was maturing I realized it was what I wanted to do.” Guerra says he now has a young nephew that looks up to him for being in the Army, which he takes to heart. “I talk to him and give him as much advice as possible. He sees me as some big ol’ soldier. I like it; it’s nice to have younger ones looking up to us.”
Guerra says he regrets not doing ROTC in high school – a decision he made because his school only offered Air Force ROTC, and he thought that wouldn’t help him. “It turns out it would have,” he says. “If someone is wanting to join the military, I would advise they join ROTC, no matter the branch their high school Is representing. It will give you a head start when you do enlist. When you’re at basic, you’ll be ahead of the game and your drill sergeants will see that.”
Guerra says he was surprised at how many of his friends and classmates decided to enlist along with him. “I was happy to see that a lot of people I know are going to be in the same family that I am,” says Guerra. “Not the same branch, but we’re still a family.”
Guerra shared that he thinks that the majority of his colleagues joined because of the educational benefits. “I think everyone should take advantage of it, because they’re there. It definitely has its benefits. Whether it’s a secure job or the money to pay for your education, it’s amazing what the government will give you. I enlisted as a 68 whiskey; that’s my MOS. It’s a combat medic specialist. We’re medics – we go out there and try to save people, keep them alive until they can get to a hospital. With that knowledge, I want to go into nursing and I will use the money the Army will give me to attend nursing school.”
Guerra felt so strongly about his new commitment to the opportunity afforded to him by the Army that he got a tattoo on his forearm to symbolize it: an arrow with a heartbeat in the middle. “I got this because I’m going into the medical field,” he explained. “The lifeline represents the medical side, saving lives, and the arrowhead represents – being a warrior, let’s put it that way.”
Having just completed the first challenge of the day, Guerra says he is looking forward to the rest of his first training camp. “I like it. The camaraderie is there; it’s high energy. We did a bunch of physical training and that’s fun, and we’re going to go do some more activities right now. It’s looking to be a great day, nice and early,” he says. “I’m pumped! I love this; I’ve been waiting for three years to do this – I’m just waiting to graduate.”
The future soldiers all received instruction on proper safety equipment and procedures for rappelling and rock wall climbing as part of the training camp’s activities. Jose Montelongo, 18, had just finished rappelling from an inclined wooden structure when we spoke, so I had to ask him about the experience. “It was my second time doing it! It’s awesome – the best feeling,” says the Palmview High School senior.
Montelongo says some of his friends were doing other challenges around the camp, and he has other friends already serving in the Army that helped him decide to join the reserves. “Some of them thought, ‘Army first, college second,’ but I wanted to do my college before I deployed. That’s why I joined the reserves,” explains Montelongo, adding that he has wanted to join since his youth. “I thought it was the right thing to do. They keep us safe, so now it’s my turn to keep our country safe, you know? It’s always been kind of a thing for me.”
Montelongo participated in ROTC for three years in high school and feels that he benefitted from the experience. “I knew it would help me to my goal, and it absolutely did. I used to not be as motivated and I needed that push to get me to go the full nine yards. I really wanted to learn to motivate myself; when I need to be motivated I want to do it by myself. That’s something the Army will help me develop further.”
Javier Hurtado, 18, says he started thinking about joining the Army last year and confirmed his decision after talked to a recruiter, Staff Sergeant Jordano Hernandez, who happened to be one of the individuals leading the future soldiers through the day’s events. Hurtado’s group had just completed an obstacle course, and was now walking to the rappelling training.
“This young man has an amazing plan,” says Staff Sergeant Hernandez, clapping Hurtado on the back. “He wants to be a flight medic, which are the guys that go out there in a Black Hawk and pick up anyone injured. So there’s no rockets or anything – you’re just the medic with a few machine guns protecting you. That’s a really dangerous job; they go out there risking their lives even if it’s just one person that needs help out there.”
Hurtado says he’s proud to take on that duty, though his grandparents taught him to be humble in everything he does. “It’s going to sound kind of corny but I want to make a difference. There are so many soldiers that don’t come back so I want to go save lives,” says Hurtado, who signed up for active-duty service. “I haven’t really realized that I’m leaving, I think. When I start thinking about it I get kind of nervous, but it wears off after a little bit when I remember that I’m going to go make a difference and then I’m fine. If I save at least one life, I know I made that difference. That’s what keeps me going, keeps me motivated.”
Hurtado, who is from Brownsville, says he has to thank his friends for introducing him to Sergeant Hernandez and giving him the encouragement to inquire about opportunities with the Army. “I saw that three of my friends joined and that’s what got me thinking about it – actually, if it weren’t for my friends, I don’t think I would have enlisted. I was always thinking about it, but my parents were always cutting off that line of thinking; any time I brought it up they told me I was going to go die or something,” says Hurtado. “I mean, there is the risk when I get sent out to combat, but that’s not today. And even if it happens, at least I’ll get to have saved some people.”
His parents did not see it that way and didn’t want him to go at first. “When I went to sign, I was still 17 so I needed their approval and they didn’t want to give it,” says Hurtado. “But I told them, you might as well sign because when I turn 18 I’m going to do it myself anyway. So reluctantly, they agreed.”
Now Hurtado finds himself in their position, feeling anxious that his 16-year-old sister is getting the idea to follow in his footsteps. “I don’t want her to join because I feel like it’s going to be too tough on her; she’s the youngest one so she’s kind of spoiled. Then again, maybe it’ll fix that,” he says with a laugh.
Jesus Martinez, 21, takes the opportunity he sees in the U.S. Army very seriously. “I can’t explain what I feel for the Army,” Martinez starts to say, but soon finds the words. “There are people that do it for different reasons, but I have a different background, coming from Mexico. I joined the Army for my family. Taking care of my family is my goal. Starting a new family with the Army is going to make sure I’m taken care of and help me achieve that goal.”
Martinez says he feels the need to give back to the country that gave so much to him. Though he had known he wanted to serve in the United States armed forces since his senior year of high school, his legal resident status meant he had to wait until he turned 21 to enlist.
“I had a lot of friends and family that joined the Army. To watch them join is awesome, but I used to get jealous because I had been wanting to join, too. Now I’m old enough and finally have the chance to do it, and I want to give back. I feel like it deserves that. I may not have been born here but I have the sense of home here. The United States gave me education, and with the Army’s support, I’ll be able to be a teacher. It’s giving me what I want to do.”
He shares that because he’s currently a legal resident, the Army can help expedite his U.S. citizenship (the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative gives noncitizen enlistees the opportunity to naturalize when they graduate from basic training). “The Army is my answer for everything. It’s how I’m going to show my mom that I finally became the young man she wanted me to be, and I’m going to be someone my little brother can look up to. I want my little brother to see someone in the Army – the professionalism and the teamwork, everything.”
This sentiment has been growing in Martinez for a long time. He says he knew he was meant for the Army ever since he joined ROTC at age 14. “It gave me a sense of family. Before joining, I was an outcast; I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” he remembers. At a school event, the ROTC club had a table set up where they introduced him to the program. “It really called out to me and gave me a sense of, ‘That could be where I belong.’”
Martinez says the discipline was important for him, and he liked looking professional in the uniform. “Even if it’s just ROTC it feels good,” he says. “People look up to you and you’re proud of what the uniform represents, so you’re proud of yourself. In a group of people where you’re the one wearing the uniform, it feel like you’re standing out.”
He recommends ROTC for any high school student considering a military career. The ROTC experience helped him in that instead of starting off as a Private E1, Martinez started as a Private E2, which comes with more responsibilities and a slightly higher pay grade. “The more experience you have in school you can rank up even more,” says Martinez. “I have a friend who started as a Corporal, and some even begin as Specialists because they did more college.”
Martinez says he’s looking forward to ranking up even more over the next 20 years he plans to spend with the Army. He is going active duty, planning to serve the longest commitment “so they know that I didn’t just enlist for the benefits,” he explains. “I’ve always wanted to better myself. The higher ranks are obtained through your experience. You have to show the knowledge and leadership, and that’s what’s expected of me. I’m just waiting to rank up for that feeling of accomplishment; I just started my career and it’s great to finally be home. I’m going to give it my all and show them that I can be a soldier – the soldier that stands out.”
Look for a second part of this article in our May/June 2017 issue of RGVision Magazine!