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|An up close and personal interview with U.S. Navy Veteran and Togetherweserved.com Member:|
PO3 Gerardo Mena US Navy (2002-2007)
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
My biggest influence in joining the military came from myself. My immediate family leads a relatively military-free existence and I was never pressured by anyone to join. In fact, the pressure upon me was not to enlist because it would "ruin my future", as my mother once put it (don't worry, she has changed her opinion and couldn't be prouder of me now).
So, I realized around the end of my High School existence that although I was a moderately successful wrestler, having made it to the State tournament several times, I did not truly know myself, or what I was physically and mentally capable of. I finally came to the conclusion that enlisting in the military and trying out for Spec Ops would push me to my limits in a way that I had never experienced. And I was completely correct in my assumption.
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
My career service path started at Navy Boot Camp, then progressed to Naval Hospital Corps School, then the Field Medical Service School, and then to the Basic Reconnaissance Course, where I experienced several "kick in the nuts" moments as I struggled to fight my way to graduation. After completing BRC I was finally in the Recon Pipeline, but still had a long ways to go to graduate and become the prestigious Reconnaissance Corpsman that I wanted to be.
So off I went to the Marine Corps Combatant Dive Course, then directly to the Dive Medicine Course, and then I was off to Fort Benning for some Airborne training. Then, finally, I showed up to the Army's Special Operations Combat Medic school in Fort Bragg, NC, and struggled through to graduate and grasp my coveted title.
Upon graduation of SOCM I received my orders to Okinawa, Japan and spent my last three years as a member of Third Reconnaissance Battalion. Once I arrived to Okinawa I was immediately assigned to the Deep Reconnaissance Platoon (DRP) on the 31st MEU. I began training for the South East Asia deployment. It was a great experience as I got to attend the Special Operations Training Group (SOTG) Dynamic Entry and Assault Course. It allowed me to get some great shooting experience under my belt.
At the end of the MEU deployment, our Platoon was picked to provide security and work with the Secret Service in Mongolia during President Bush's tour across Asia, which was a very entertaining experience.
After coming back from Mongolia, our MEU Platoon was disbanded and scattered to the winds. At this point, my original enlistment was coming to an end, so I extended my contract by an six extra months so I could head to Iraq with my buddies. I wasn't about to let them go into battle without me. So I was attached to a brand new Platoon. The most fresh out of BRC and we trained up and headed over to the Sandbox.
After my return, I still had about two months before I got out. So I started a rock band and it caused some trouble. It ended my career with an Honorable Discharge and a deeper sense of the person that I truly am and what I am capable of.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
My deployment to Iraq was very tough. We lost these great men:
Johnathan Simpson, Killed In Action, October 14th, 2006.
Kyle Powell, Killed In Action, November 4th, 2006.
Jose Galvan, Killed In Action, November 4th, 2006.
Nathan Krisoff, Killed In Action, December 9th, 2006.
Gary Johnston, Killed In Action, January 23rd, 2007.
Dustin Lee, Killed In Action, March 21st, 2007.
It was very frustrating and oddly surreal, as one day you'd have a completely normal and sarcastic conversation over something mundane and boring. The next day or maybe even the next hour, they'd be gone and you'd realize that your last words to each other were ridiculous.
There were also many moments of helplessness. As one of the most highly trained Combat Medics in the world, it's a tough blow to the pride when someone becomes beyond saving.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
My favorite particular memory that stands out is the day that I graduated the Special Operations Combat Medic School. This was the culmination of two and a half years of training and schooling. This marked the day that I became an official Reconnaissance Corpsman and that my true journey would begin. While I was now on the bottom rung as the new guy, untested in a Unit or battle, at least I was holding on to one. This was the day that I proved to myself that I was capable of accomplishing great things and now all I had to do was go out and do them. This was the day I discovered that I was capable of anything.
WERE ANY OF THE MEDALS OR AWARDS YOU RECEIVED FOR VALOR? IF YES, COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW THIS WAS EARNED?
Yes. I was awarded a Navy Achievement Medal with a V for Valor for multiple acts of heroism while under fire. I earned this medal by sprinting through a possible bomb site to get to some casualties that had just been wounded by an IED.
Another incident I was involved with happened when one of our teams had two members sniped through their legs. My buddy John Murray, another Reconnaissance Corpsman, was on radio watch at the same time I was when it happened. He had to abandon his radio up to the Battalion as he ran out to treat the wounded with the standby team. I took over both radios, updating the situation to the Battalion and securing the MEDEVAC. At the same time I was guiding in the AAV's to the injury site in a small city built like a maze with roadblocks every other street. We definitely learned not to put two Corpsmen on radio watch at the same time that day.
The last major incident occurred when our Command vehicle struck an IED and the fuel ignited. I treated my Platoon Commander, the Turret Gunner that went flying out of the vehicle, the Driver that had minor burns to his hands, and the Platoon Radio Chief that had third degree burns to 45% of his body. Sadly, our Intel Officer was pinned under the turret ring as it fell and we were helpless and had to watch him burn to ashes. We think that since the blast occurred directly underneath him and he died immediately. It's one of those far-fetched reaches in thought, but I couldn't bare to envision his death any other way.
I attached a picture of the Radio Chief in the hospital. He was, and still is, one of my best friends. He spent two years recovering from those burns and fighting against a Medical Discharge. To prove he was healthy, he ran two separate Marine Corps Marathons in Cammies and Boots. He recently trained up with a Unit and just touched down in Afghanistan where he'll spend the next year deployed. He is the toughest individual I have ever met.
OF THE MEDALS, AWARDS AND QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICES YOU RECEIVED, WHAT IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
My Navy Achievement Medal with Combat Device is the most meaningful to me. It represents a time in my life when I was brave. Not fearless, but capable of mastering my own cowardice and forcing my body to act and react to dangerous situations. When the bullets start flying and the adrenaline pumps hot throughout the body, nobody can predict how they will act that first time they experience real life or death danger. I've been dreaming of glory and bravery since I was a little boy, but until I found myself in a real war zone, I had no idea what it was really like.
Luckily, I found myself on the side of bravery, but there are stories of men, even in Spec Ops, that would rather hide and lay face down in mud than risk their sorry lives for their Platoon-mates. I pity those men. They don't know what true friendship is. My old Platoon-mates would have moved or destroyed heaven and hell if I needed them to. That bond is rare.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
By far, the person that has had the largest impact on my life has been John Murray, who is now a Senior Chief. He was the Company Head Corpsman, and pushed me hard, not just preparing myself for war, but preparing myself to be a leader.
When I first met John Murray as he strolled into the Battalion Aid Station and informed me and another Recon Corpsman that there were two of us and only one Platoon left that was going to do actual Recon missions in Iraq. The other was going to sit in the Battalion Headquarters and work Sick Call the entire deployment and file paperwork. He then told us that we needed to write an essay on why we think we deserve the position. In true Mena fashion, I got drunk and wrote down that he could take his Iraq Platoon and shove it up his ass and turned it in to him. He then gave me the job and mentioning later on that he was already going to pick me based upon my prior reputation. Then he immediately started pushing me past any comfort zones I thought I had.
I did not get much down time around John Murray. If I wasn't training, then I was being forced to fill out award nominations, or teach other Units, or learn how to file dreaded paperwork, all of which made me a better all-around operator and asset to the unit. I have since taken this discipline and hard work ethic into my civilian life.
This photo is of John Murray after he was shot by a sniper through his scapula in his latest deployment to Afghanistan. He is currently rehabbing, and will soon take an Instructor billet in North Carolina.
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME AND STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
I still laugh when I think about the first time I met my buddy Trey. He was running down the hallway chasing after his mattress that someone was trying to throw outside during a field day night. He threw himself through the air and landed on the very tail end right as the guy was trying to run out the side door with it. You might be thinking why would someone try and run out a door carrying a mattress? Well, this was the third mandatory field day cleaning event in two weeks and we had just been pulled out of a Training Op to do it. At the time we had a Platoon Sergeant that been an instructor for so long that when he finally returned to the fleet. He believed more in keeping rooms clean and holding uniform inspections than combat training. Luckily he had a nervous breakdown and was rotated out of the Battalion before we deployed to Iraq and we were able to complete our Training Ops and live fire ranges.
While we were in Iraq, Trey was my driver in the Medical Vehicle. To show you what type of man he is after we had seen several of our friends killed, I told him I wanted to rotate drivers so that he didn't have to help deal with every casualty and maybe it would save some of his sanity for his new bride. He told me to "fuck off, you ain't getting rid of me and I'm offended you even tried".
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?
Well currently I am an Undergraduate at the University of Missouri where I am studying Secondary Education with my emphasis in Language Arts. Basically, I'm going to be a High School English teacher. But, I've also recently had some success in poetry and music. I won the "2010 War Poetry" contest sponsored by Winningwriters and that led to being featured in Poets & Writers Magazine as an award winning war poet. Now I have ten poems that are published or will be forthcoming in the next year in six different literary journals.
What's also great is that I recorded a demo in my apartment last summer just for fun, but my songs started receiving some recognition and I was recently featured in the Nashville Review, The Blue Lotus Review on several internet radio stations and have done three different music interviews. If anyone wants to check out my music or poetry just head to www.facebook.com/tonymena.
And now that I realize that I can do anything I put my mind to, including being a writer, I've decided to write my memoir about my Iraq experiences. I want to be able to let the world know how great my living friends are, and how amazing my friends that died were. I feel that writing an honest and sarcastic account of what happened is the best way to honor them. The other thing I'm doing with the memoir is chronicling the writing of it in a blog at www.gerardomena.com. This way, when it is finally finished someday, the world will see what a struggle it was to write and then they can see that they can do it too. America needs more veteran voices. They need to understand what it's like to value a flag more than yourself.
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
I am currently a member of the Mizzou Students Veterans Association (MSVA), which is an organization of veterans on the University of Missouri's campus. We do a lot of outreach in the community with volunteer work and campus-wide events and we're also involved nationally in trying to push for better veteran rights on college campuses across the country. I actually just won the "2011 Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Leadership" which is the first time a veteran has won it and it marks a change in how veterans are perceived on the MU campus.
HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
The military and more importantly being in Recon has instilled the values of hard work and discipline all the way down into my soul. While I've found a new direction in life, I still apply the same tenacity to accomplish and achieve all the goals I set in front of myself.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?
My advice would be "dare to fail". Don't be afraid to risk everything for something you want. Whether it be a challenging billet or changing your MOS/NEC. Life is short and can end unexpectedly. A fact driven home after a rough war deployment. It's better to try and fail then always wonder "what if". And when it comes to failure, the more you try and fail the more you will learn about your true character and your will to persevere. Failure causes you to grow and better yourself. Success after failing is much sweeter than if everything fell into your lap and you coasted through life.
My second piece of advice is WRITE IT ALL DOWN! The stories we veterans have are rare and unique and the world needs our voices.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?
Togetherweserved.com has helped me share my stories with other veterans. Hopefully inspiring
some of them to write their stories down and share with others. There is a need for community and friendship beyond just an enlistment. Together we can all conquer the world.
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