Serving Is The Best Of Both Worlds
by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mary Katzenberger
January 28, 2022
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Omar Gonzalez Mena is passionate about helping people.
The petroleum supply specialist, deployed here with the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, has spent much of his adult life teaching; first as an educator on his native island of Puerto Rico, and today as a noncommissioned officer in the Army.
Left - U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Omar Gonzalez Mena, a petroleum supply specialist assigned to the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, at Camp Arifjan Army Base in Arifjan, Kuwait on January 19, 2022. He has been in the Army for nine years and is scheduled to reenlist for six more years. Right - Staff Sgt. Omar Gonzalez Mena with his 15-year-old son, Omariel at an undisclosed location and date. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from photos by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mary Katzenberger and Staff Sgt. Omar Gonzalez Mena.)
“If you can educate people, maybe you’re going to be able to change the whole world,” the staff sergeant said.
Gonzalez took a few moments away from his role in supporting the mission of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command—the unit responsible for sustainment operations throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility—to talk about why he serves.
Teacher To Soldier
Gonzalez smiles when he thinks back on his first career in which he spent four years teaching geometry, physics and calculus to high school students. He said he wanted his students to know that math is bigger than numbers.
“I was that guy not just trying to teach math, but I always taught something about how you can use this for your life,” the staff sergeant said. “I feel that when you can find that meaning in your life—how can I use this for my life, how can this make me a better person, how can I use it to help someone else—you see things differently.”
Gonzalez said nothing tops having the opportunity to prepare young men and women for the world. He said whenever he travels back home to his island he runs into former students who still express gratitude for the role he played in their young lives.
“This is something that the money is never going to replace, that emotion when somebody is really thankful for you,” the staff sergeant said. “That’s a really good feeling.”
While his heart was in education, Gonzalez said he felt he was also pulled to serve in the military. He said he was drawn to the military because of how it was portrayed in films.
“It was like a passion, that was something that I was trying to be one day,” the staff sergeant said. “I was that guy that wanted to have the uniform on to see how this feels, and [to know] why people are so proud of that uniform.”
Gonzalez raised his right hand and enlisted in 2012, and shipped off to attend the Defense Language Institute English Language Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
“That’s the first mission you have as a Hispanic Soldier,” the staff sergeant said. “The Army wants to make sure that you really can dominate the language, so the send you to this school for six months.”
Gonzalez said his time at the institute was stressful because he knew if he didn’t master the English language in the allotted time he would not be able to begin his Army career.
“It was a little bit difficult for me to pick up the language, and I was a little bit afraid that I was going to be that guy going home, but I did it,” the staff sergeant said. “I was one of those guys with the highest scores from my group.”
Gonzalez passed the language test in his fourth month at the institute, shipped off to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and learned his trade as a 92L, or petroleum laboratory specialist, at Fort Lee, Virginia.
Serving As An Educator
The staff sergeant also smiles when he reflects on what has turned out to be a nine year career in the military, and he said he is excited to reenlist for another six years in the coming weeks.
“I found out that the Army had a lot of good things,” Gonzalez said. “It can show you a lot of discipline, you’re going to meet really good people, and you’re going to gain a lot of good tools to be a better person.”
He said service has not come without challenges, though, as some Soldiers have treated him differently because of where he is from and because English is his second language.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re going, some people feel that you’re not part of the group,” Gonzalez said. “You’re going to feel like they’re trying to push you into the corner, and it’s a little bit challenging when that happens [because] you don’t have the same opportunities that the other guy is going to have because you don’t have the [same] help.”
The staff sergeant said he used those opportunities as motivation to excel.
“I’m going to prove to you that I can do better than you think that I can do; I’m not going to allow you to put me down and make me feel like I’m not worthy,” Gonzalez said. “I know I can do it so I have all the opportunities to be a better person, to be a better Soldier, and to keep moving forward.”
The staff sergeant said becoming a noncommissioned officer provided him the opportunity to put on his educator hat once more. He spent a third of his career as an instructor at the Basic Leader Course at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
“I really loved it, it’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Gonzalez said. “I was teaching—doing what I love—but also I was still in the uniform.
“You’re an instructor, but you’re also trying to make people think differently, not just about the Army but also about their life,” the staff sergeant continued. “How can you use the Army and all the tools that the Army is going to provide you to have a better life—not just for you, but for your family.”
Gonzalez said he is also grateful to the Army for the quality of life he has been able to provide to his 15-year-old son, Omariel, who resides in Puerto Rico.
“Everybody knows that I really miss him; it’s rough being here right now, but this is part of the Army,” the staff sergeant said. “But this is also the reason that I’m here, so that I can give him everything that I never had before.”
Gonzalez said he is looking forward to redeploying and flying home to visit his son, where they will enjoy going on runs together and spending quality time.
“When I saw that kid for the first time, I took that little kid in my hands and I made a promise to myself that I was going to take care of him, that I was going to be there for him, and it doesn’t matter what, I was going to be the best father that I can,” the staff sergeant said. “It’s a little bit difficult because we are here in Kuwait right now, but even with the distance I try to call him every day to see how he’s doing in school and keep that communication between father and son.”
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