Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Long before he became a strapping HRVHS football player, and way before he became a National Guardsman serving in Iraq, Robert Mendez, 23, dreamed of becoming a soldier.
"I've wanted to be a firefighter or in the military since I was in seventh grade," said Mendez, who signed on to the National Guard while a senior at HRVHS in 2007.
Contrary to Mendez' vision for himself, his mother, Lynne Davidson, a single mom raising six children, hoped for a different future for her son.
"I never wanted it," said Davidson. "Of course, I support him as a son, but I am not supportive of our county's wars. The one thing this has taught me is what unconditional love really means."
"I was big into football and wrestling. I liked the idea of the physical challenge and working with a team," said Mendez, who returned from his first tour of duty in Iraq in September.
Encountering some trouble in high school, Mendez was dropped from the football team and ended up walking into the Hood River Armory recruiting office prior to graduation.
Following several years of training, Mendez spent his first deployment in Balad in eastern central Iraq from September 2010 to September 2011.
When Mendez signed up, he admits that the cash bonuses and GI Bill tuition benefits were big incentives to join.
He had hoped to become a combat engineer - the men who designed tools to blow things up.
But, although promised he could choose any direction he wanted prior to enlisting, once signed up, Mendez was given a different assignment based on what positions the Guard needed to fill.
Working primarily as security for convoys used to transport supplies in some of the most dangerous territories between Baghdad and outlying military posts, Mendez started his deployment riding atop the MRAP - or mine-resistant ambush-protected patrol vehicles.
Mendez's job was to perch in the "crow's nest" as a forward observer - the man most exposed to insurgent fire and attack - while scanning the horizon surrounding the road for potential dangers and attackers.
According to several military websites, Mendez's patrol area is ground zero for the insurgency. About 80 percent of the attacks against coalition forces occur in the triangle area formed by Baghdad, Tikrit and Ar Ramadi, which encompasses Balad.
"It seemed that we were doing something really important - getting supplies like food and water to our guys out there. Only a few bases had landing strips so they needed us to get the stuff through," said Mendez as he reflected on how he felt about his work.
Since his most dangerous first assignment, in which he witnessed a fellow MRAP vehicle and crew be blown apart a few feet in front of him, Mendez progressed in rank from Private E1 to Sergeant E5.
Conversely, since his return home three months ago to Vancouver, Wash. - where he now lives with his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter - Mendez has not yet been able to translate that progress into civilian employment.
"I need a job to pay the bills until I can maybe get back into school," said Mendez. "I'd take anything I can find. Basic labor even. I'm trying to get job leads from my buddies who are also out and working."
Like many young veterans who are promised job skills through their military service, Mendez hasn't found too many employers needing the specific skill sets he learned. As such, he now plans to return to school to become more employable, though he believes he would make the same choice to enlist even now.
Mendez also admits to having to relearn some basic civilian skills now that he is home.
Initially, he felt "antsy all the time" and he found it difficult to be in public places or to drive, which caused his highly alert self-protection instincts to react strongly to routine stimuli.
Of course, in Iraq, being quick to react and suspicious is what often saves a soldier's life.
"We had to be prepared for bombs in everything alongside the roads. They hid them in dead animals; inside puppies. They were in cargo boxes and trash piles."
Coming home after the constant vigilance and hierarchical decision-making has proved to have some additional challenges.
"I've also had to adjust to being a partner and father. I'm no longer Sgt. Mendez giving orders. Like, I have to help my daughter do things - not expect her to get things done the way I tell her to."
Mendez originally signed on for an eight-year commitment. With current deployment practices, Mendez believes he may not have to return to Iraq.
For Mendez's mother, that would be good news; although not the end of her worries. Mendez's younger brother Danny, also a HRVHS grad, has just signed up for the Marines.
"I am saddened that we as a nation choose to put so much money into the military. Why can't we put those financial lures into things that would support doing more good for other countries and our own? What about supporting renewable energy training or Witness for Peace volunteers," said Davidson.
"I would never try to talk someone into or out of joining the military. It's their decision," said Mendez. "But, a lot of people don't think four or five years down the road. They just think 'Hey, this is pretty cool,' without really doing a lot of research. Kids should talk to their parents and get their input."
Mendez now plans to make up for lost time with his girlfriend and daughter and to - "hopefully" - find a job soon.