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Latina mother realizes childhood dream of serving her country

LatinaLista — Marilyn Gonzalez Colon is a fighter. She fought her way back from being a teen mom and high school dropout to getting her GED at age 25 and graduating from college with an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts from Boricua College.

This New York Puerto Rican Latina also fought to recapture a childhood dream she thought was gone forever after having five children. Instead of giving up on her dream, she blazed a trail in her family when she enlisted in the Army National Guard.

Deployment Ceremony at TD Gardens joined mother and daughters. (L-R) Spc Jessica Pedraza, Brooklyn Gonzalez age 2 and Sgt. Marilyn Gonzalez.

It was only a couple of years after 9/11 and Colon knew she wanted to do something for herself and her country and do it in a way that showed her patriotism.

“I always wanted to go into the service,” Colon tells Latina Lista over the phone from her home in Rockland, Massachusetts. “But I thought I couldn’t do it because of my kids.”

It didn’t take long for her to discover she was wrong. Receiving the blessing of her husband and children, Colon plunged ahead to fulfill her dream by taking the tests, the physical, passing them and entering the military one day before her 35th birthday.

It’s been a ten-year military career for this Sargeant and 88m Motor Transportation Operator. She’s been deployed to the combat zones of Iraq and Kuwait, but her biggest thrill was witnessing the impact she has had on her own children. Of her five children, four have enlisted at one time or another in the military.

It was during her last deployment to Iraq that Colon learned just how much her children supported her decision to serve in the military. Her 19-year-old daughter at the time, Jessica, had also joined the military. Knowing her mom was to be deployed abroad, she had herself reclassified so she could be with her. Both women were assigned to the same unit and had the same Military Occupation Specialty or MOS, but Colon’s happiness of having her daughter nearby didn’t last long.

“At first, I thought it would be comforting because I would have family there,” Colon said. “But it was hard for me, ten times harder for me. Not only was I afraid for myself, I was afraid for her. I couldn’t protect her there especially because this was not a familiar situation or environment to me.”

Another reason Colon was worried for her daughter was because she knew she was experiencing the same jokes and stereotyping at her expense that goes on in a male-dominated environment. She prayed that was all.

“I did go through some stuff,” Colon cautiously confesses. “In Iraq, women were treated like animals and I did go through a sexual assault.”

As a result, Colon returned stateside “a different person” but with an even deeper bond with her daughter.

“Before we were deployed, we had a mother-daughter relationship; we came back with a special bond, a soldier’s bond.”

But being back hasn’t been easy for Colon. She finds herself fighting again — fighting to be the person she was before her deployment. What’s worse is that she doesn’t see the military going out of their way to help soldiers like herself.

“What I found with the military classes and meetings is that like everything else in the military, it’s structured so that the majority of us clam up and keep our feelings to ourselves for fear of either being committed, or even worse, thrown out, if we’re still serving even in a part-time capacity, like the National Guard,” Colon shared.

Mother and daughter share a moment while both are stationed in Baghdad, Iraq.

So instead of turning to the military for help, Colon has found alternative ways to get her through these tough times. One has been through a Facebook group of “battle buddies” and the other is an organization called Project New Hope.

A loyal supporter of Project New Hope, Colon says that what makes the group so special is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the military and is an organization created by veterans for veterans.

“They truly care about you and helping you deal with any issues you may have after returning home,” Colon said. “They also have retreats that allow you to bring your family and help you to reconnect and share your stories. You know that whatever you say or do there, it will not go further. They are not going to run to the military and tell them what you’re going through. They are there for you! And that’s the difference between military programs and Project New Hope. It’s not to say that military programs don’t work; they’re just different.”

In addition to her involvement with Project New Hope — Colon is working on a video in Spanish for the organization to reach Spanish-speaking families — she works nights doing commercial cleaning and spends her days reconnecting with the youngest members of her family.

“Since being back, I still feel the guilt of being away and am working at reconnecting with my family,” Colon shared. “But it’s still hard. I don’t really talk to my husband or family members about what happened over there because they don’t get it.”

Yet, in spite of everything, Colon has no regrets and encourages anyone who wants to enlist in the military.

“You have to want to do it,” Colon said. “It’s not for everyone. You have to reach deep inside of you to see if you want it bad enough to do it — then you just know if it’s the right thing for you. Even after everything that happened to me, I would still go back.”

Article is part of an editorial initiative for the National Hispanic Veterans Advocacy Network (NHVAN) highlighting Latino military personnel and military-serving organizations.

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