Veteran finds his new calling after retirement

February 8, 2016

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As a boy, Mike Gonzales and his family would often drive by Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Familiar with the military’s well-known presence throughout the city, Gonzales always admired the soldiers he saw. After graduating high school, he enlisted in the Army and found himself on a plane to Hawaii. It was there he began his 22-year career and a life-changing journey that led him to Texas Lutheran University.

Although Gonzales was technically in paradise while stationed in Hawaii, his training as an infantryman was extremely difficult.

“I was a foot soldier and we were out in the elements every single day,” Gonzales said. “I remember many times where I was out in the rain or the cold, shivering and practically crying. I wanted to give up. But I didn’t. I knew there was something more for me to accomplish.”

After leaving Hawaii in 1995, Gonzales joined the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. There, he took on a leadership role as a sergeant and began training others. In 2001, after returning from a year in Korea, Gonzales’ life—like many American soldiers—was never the same. The events of 9/11 sent him to Afghanistan for six months.

“It was hell,” he said. “But when you come back you realize how much of what you have is a blessing. America at its worst is nowhere near as bad as it is over there. When I came back, I submitted my documentation to become a warrant officer or someone who is highly trained at a specific skill.”

Gonzales remained at Fort Hood until 2003 when he was deployed to Iraq for a year to begin mobility officer training. He briefly returned to Fort Hood in 2005 before once again going back to Baghdad. It was that tour that truly changed him.

“I didn’t come back the same,” Gonzales said. “I was in a very bad place emotionally and I was hurting. I was isolating myself from my family and constantly paranoid. I was drinking heavily and I couldn’t snap out of it no matter how much I told myself to. I thought about leaving the Army. But, I had superiors and other officers telling me that they believed in me and they weren’t going to give up on me. I knew I needed help and that’s when I reached out to mental health professionals.”

In 2007, Gonzales became an officer. He said he also found his own spirituality amidst all the pain his post-traumatic stress disorder had caused. In 2009, he returned to Iraq for 14 months before coming home to Fort Hood. He worked at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for a few years and retired at Fort Hood in 2014 as a chief warrant officer III.

After 22 years of service to his country and traveling the world, Gonzales still felt there was something left for him to accomplish: graduating college. Living in La Vernia, Texas he often drove by the TLU campus. Curious about the academic programs, Gonzales—who had been attending a large university in San Antonio— visited the website and was intrigued by the theology department.

“I transferred to TLU so I could get my degree,” Gonzales said. “After being here, I realized I wanted to go pre-seminary and become a military chaplain. I can identify with soldiers. I know their hurt and pain. I want to be there for them and guide them. I want them to know I’m not going to quit on them. My experience can help somebody.”

Those experiences, combined with the help of the TLU theology faculty, are what continue to inspire him.

“Their level of commitment and enthusiasm to teach reflects their love and passion for the material,” Gonzales said. “It makes me want to come to class and you can tell they care about each and every student. Someone like Dr. Norm Beck teaches with so much passion. When I found out who he was and his background, I immediately wanted to be part of the program. Everyone wants you to succeed here. This is a place where you’ll be challenged and encouraged. When I walk around campus, I still can’t believe I’m here.”

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