The Gomez Family
Gumersindo Gomez, 71, of Springfield, Massachusetts, served 20 years in the Army and saw combat in Vietnam. His wife, Eva Gomez, 57, served six years in the Army Reserve. Gumersindo’s son Giovanni Gomez, 50, served three years in the Army and later went to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 as a Department of Defense employee. Grandson Tyler Rodriguez, 21, is active-duty Army; he had just finished a tour in South Korea at the time of this interview.
Why they served
Gumersindo: I was born in Puerto Rico. In January 1966, my mother shipped me to New York City to some family members. I started working in a factory, making slippers. I used to walk down 42nd Street because they had cheap hamburgers, two for a quarter. I started watching the guys in uniform, and I started liking the uniform itself. I could remember back in my youngest days seeing my father in uniform, and my godfather, who had just come home from the Korean War. I decided to join the Army, not even really knowing there was a war going on. I went to basic and advanced training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. From there I went to Vietnam. I went to war.
Eva: When I was growing up, in the 1960s and ’70s, my parents were strict, but I wanted to do everything a man could do. In our culture, at the time, men were the leaders and you had to do everything under a man. So I was always competing to see what a man could do that I could not. I wanted to try something different and not get married yet, like all my sisters did, so I joined the Army Reserve in 1981. I ended up training under one of the companies of which Gumersindo was the senior drill sergeant. That’s how I met my husband! Now we have a big family, and our grandson has joined the military. If our kids and grandkids make that decision, we respect that. We cannot put that fear in them: “Oh, you cannot join the military because you’re going to die.” You can’t live your life with fear.
Photos Courtesy the Gomez family
Tyler: For me, it started in high school. I wasn’t doing well. I got in trouble my senior year, and I couldn’t play football. One day I was playing video games and my mom said, “Get dressed. We got to go somewhere.” I asked, “Where?” She said, “You’ll see when we get there.” It was snowing, and we came up in the car. I saw the sign: “Armed Forces Recruitment Center.” I was, like, Oh, God! No!
I talked to the recruiter. I still talk to that recruiter today. I talked to my grandfather Gumersindo. I talked to my grandmother Eva. As much as I loved Springfield, I said, “That’s it. I’m joining.” I was scared to leave Springfield and my family, but nothing about serving in the Army scared me. For me, it’s been a good decision.
On race and pride in the military
Gumersindo: We were color-blind while we were in combat in Vietnam. In the field everybody covered everybody. Once we got back to the States, we segregated ourselves. Blacks had their place; Hispanics had their place; Caucasians had their place.
Giovanni: Growing up in the 1970s, all I knew was the Army. As a kid, because of my father’s job as a drill sergeant, I lived on Army bases and went to Army schools. Army life is a society within a society. As a child, I did not encounter prejudice. You have no choice who your neighbor is. It’s whoever the Army assigns. If Koreans are assigned, then your neighbors are Korean. If blacks are assigned, then your neighbors are black. You all go to school together. You depend on one another. Your dads work together. You get to be friends with everybody. But then when I was 13, my parents got divorced — Eva is my stepmother — and I moved to Georgia with my mother. That was the first time I experienced prejudice. I’ll never forget sitting in class and the kid next to me says, “What are you, black or white?” I said, “I’m Puerto Rican.” He said, “No, you’re black or white. And you ain’t white.” It blew my mind because, in Army society, everyone was equal.
Tyler: Today, in the Army, you’re taught to respect everybody. So they don’t really want you to speak Spanish when you’re working. It’s better for everybody to speak one language, English. It’s all a brotherhood. Everybody looks at each other the same. I have brothers from every race. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t see color.
A lot of people don’t know about Puerto Rican history in the Army. Some people don’t even know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. For me, there’s a lot of pride because my grandfather taught me about Puerto Rican soldiers and what they’ve done for the American military.
Giovanni: Puerto Ricans have fought in every major modern American conflict.
Paying it forward
Gumersindo: When I retired from the Army, in 1986, I started volunteering at a veterans center. I talked to veterans about post-tramautic stress disorder, PTSD — which I had, too — and noticed that many Hispanic vets did not speak English well, and that made their problems worse. A group of veterans and I opened three bilingual centers in Massachusetts in 1987 that we called the Puerto Rican Veterans Association [later renamed the Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts].
I have been working to help my fellow veterans ever since. I don’t want to retire. I have brothers and sisters who need my help.