WILLIAMS, Ariz. — After five years of active duty and a stint in the National Guard, during which he was stationed in Afghanistan, Ivan Gonzalez gained a new appreciation for hot showers, snack foods and small aspects of life many of us take for granted in the United States.
Gonzalez, who lives near Williams, works for the Forest Service’s Chief Information Office in the virtual data center, joined the Air Force and served five years of active duty. While in the USAF, Gonzalez tested aircraft black boxes, looking at the programs and troubleshooting any problems. The black box system integrates several different components needed to operate the aircraft, such as communications and navigation.
Gonzalez was the first in his family to join the military, and at the time, it wasn’t exactly well-accepted by the rest of his family.
“My brother actually said ‘Hey, I’ll give you $500 not to join,’” he said.
Gonzalez, who grew up in southern California, said it wasn’t enough to deter him.
“The Air Force brought me out of a far more harrowing situation,” he said. “I lived in a predominantly poor community which was overrun with gangs, and it (the Air Force) allowed me to get out of that lifestyle and into something a little more positive, a little more structured. It’s created a great foundation for my family going forward.”
The Air Force was at least partially responsible for that family as well – he met his wife while at his first duty station in Fairbanks, Alaska. He was working on F-16 fighter planes, and she was a local woman from a nearby town. They’ve been married 22 years.
After retiring from the Air Force, Gonzalez joined the National Guard and was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan with a rescue unit, where he worked on H-60 Sikorsky helicopters. Gonzalez worked upgrading the satellite communication system on the aircraft, which helps pilots identify other friendly or hostile aircraft while in the combat zone.
“My main mission there was to get that system up and running so that our helicopters could get off the ground without being shot down by friendly fire,” he said. “It allowed us to do a tremendous amount of rescues.”
The unit focused mainly on rescues of third-party nationals – civilians who were in the line of fire or who needed medical evacuations from hospitals without the capabilities to treat them, including children injured by roadside bombs. Gonzalez said the team flew to the location, evacuated the injured back to a military hospital in Kandahar, treated them as much as possible and then flew them back to their homes.
“The biggest thing I was able to see was when you go from our United States culture and you go into Afghanistan where people are creating their homes from leftover Soviet helicopter parts – the primitive lifestyle they led really stuck with me,” Gonzalez said. “It allowed me to appreciate what we had on a daily basis. Hot showers are amazing. I could take longer than a 10-minute shower. I didn’t have to sleep on the ground. We’re so bountiful in our culture in everyday living. We have tremendous amounts compared to what they have.”
Gonzalez explained that regular visitors to the base bazaar were friendly, but others were a mixed bag of suspicious and, on one occasion, dangerous.
Gonzalez said a crew of locals was working on some landscaping for the base and actually caused an explosion by signaling some of their counterparts about eight miles away with mirrors.
“They were triangulating where to send rockets on the base,” he explained.
Airmen on the base thought at the time that they were participating in drills and wargames, but hostiles were actually bombing the base with 105 mm rockets fired from a mountain range to the south. The attack didn’t result in any deaths, but Gonzalez said some vehicles were destroyed and one unexploded rocket lodged itself in a tree within the compound and had to be carefully disposed of.
Gonzalez was only in the country for four months, but that was enough for him to gain a new perspective.
“The realization of being somewhere else, and knowing your life is in jeopardy in any moment really doesn’t give you a comfortable feeling,” he said. “But the sense of purpose while you’re there does help you overcome that, because you’re doing good work there.”
Gonzalez said the readjustment to civilian life after coming home from deployment was tough.
“The news you see (over there) isn’t the same news you see here in the States,” he explained. “As I left, there was an incident and three CIA guys had been killed and I saw nothing about it on the news here. Coming back I just felt like there wasn’t enough appreciation for what’s going on over there.”
Gonzalez said it took a good three or four months to really get reacclimated, but there are a lot of things that linger in the mind after coming home. He said he misses the comradery with his crew, and he had a little bit of guilt about leaving them when his deployment ended.
It’s something he doesn’t really think about anymore, however. He and his wife plan to stay in northern Arizona for the forseeable future, and neither of his children have expressed any interest in joining the military.