The United States of America has been at war for 10 years. It has been a long decade of unrest, uncertainty and fear, a decade that has seen men and women standing up to find for our freedoms and showing the kind of bravery and heroism told in movies and novels. It takes a certain type of person to rise up and defend others. And it takes a certain type of church to surround our heroes and give them support as they serve and sacrifice.
Saddleback member Jeff Gonzalez is a true hero. More than 18 years ago, he answered the call to defend his country and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He enlisted in the military, and at the young age of 19, he began his military training.
A Born Leader Learns to Follow
Gonzalez' strong will and natural leadership qualities were repeatedly recognized by his superiors and he quickly moved his way up the ranks, but his will and resolve would be tested as he continued his training. “After I graduated from boot camp, I went through Communications school where I was underneath what the Marines affectionately call the ‘Terminal Lance’. This is someone who will be a Lance Corporal for the rest of his career. He tells me ‘You probably don’t like what I’m doing. You’re right, I’m not good at what I do. But guess what? I may be the lowest guy on the totem pole, but I’m still the most senior guy here, so you gotta listen to me. And, if you don’t want to listen to me, that’s fine, I’m gonna make you listen to me. The only way not to listen to me is by being in charge of me. So if you want to be in charge of me that means you gotta do things better than me, at a higher standard and you gotta get promoted.’”
“So I didn’t complain,” says Gonzalez. “I shut my mouth.” As he held his tongue and worked hard, within just one year of graduating boot camp, he was meritoriously promoted to corporal. Gonzalez then found himself at the same rank as his “Terminal Lance” and, shortly after, was promoted to rank above him. “I went up to him and I said, ‘You told me to get promoted above you . . . well here I am.’”
Gonzalez then went to Marine Security Guard training, which is training to protect U.S. Embassies overseas. He was stationed in Honduras, Prague, Czech Republic, and in Africa. After a brief 2 ½ years of duty, he was promoted to seargant - a level that takes most marines roughly four years to reach.
Sept 11 and a New Call to Fight
After embassy duty, Gonzalez went on reserve duty and began working in the private sector. When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occured, he was working as the Senior Executive for Federated Department Stores, doing VIP protection for events such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“To see everyone running in fear on 9/11, that took a pretty big toll. Some Marines in the reserve unit I was a part of lost their lives in the towers. They were firemen and police officers.”
“I knew that my time as a reservist was over. I had to get back in to the fight. I guess that’s always been a trend for me. I don’t like to sit on the sidelines and I don’t like to be that guy that just lets things happen. I wanted to be part of the solution. And I guess that translates to me being a part of Saddleback Camp Leatherneck. I want to be part of this solution, too.”
Shortly after September 11, Gonzalez informed his parents that he would be returning to active duty. “My job is to put my life on the line so others can be free. That’s why I joined the Marine Corps. There is the risk of death but if it means the freedom of others, to live and do what they want and to protest against me or stand next to me, then that’s what I’ll do. That’s what service for this country is.” Gonzalez returned to active duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Toll War Takes on Military Families
Gonzalez talks about his family. “I’ve been in the Marine Corps for almost 18 years. The majority of the time I’ve been on active duty. Seven years ago I married my bride Christine, who had three kids. Our oldest is RJ, who is 1, and has cerebral palsy. He doesn’t talk, doesn’t walk, and is fed through the stomach. Then we have our 16 year old Alexis. She’s an amazing 16 year old girl. More mature than most girls her age, but she has to be - she’s a Marine Corps daughter. Then there’s Zachary who’s 10, he’s my athlete and soccer star. Then there’s Michael who’s 5, and he’s the actor, athlete and funny guy.”
“I got stationed in California in late 2005, after which I immediately went off to training while Christine held down the homefront. With two babies - a special needs family - she held it down. From 2006 until now, the longest period of time I’ve ever spent at home in a given period is about one month. The war has taken a toll in our family.”
Military women and men like Gonzalez are strong, brave and resilient, but they are not without limitations. Rates of suicide, divorce, domestic violence and alcoholism have seen devastatingly steep rises over the last ten years that our country has been at war. War and deployment take their tolls in many ways, from depression to the tragic loss of life in battle.
“And you know that’s kind of what led me here, to start Saddleback Camp Leatherneck. I see our men and women deploying like this on a regular basis. The divorce rate is something like 70-80% because of the war. The suicide rate has increased, domestic violence has increased. Just a lot of lost souls, if you will. But my marriage has stayed firm and my family has stayed firm.”
Deployed to Afghanistan
Gonzalez was deployed to his latest duty in Afghanistan just a few short days ago. Prior to his deployment, he talked about the struggle to say goodbye and then focus on the mission ahead. “The pre-deployment process is always really hard. For the family, it’s really difficult because they’re going through a mix of emotions because they know the inevitable is coming.”
“You have to go to all these meetings, and briefs about what it’s going to look like when you leave. And then they give you those briefs, like your last will and testament. You start understanding that the deployment is coming and you go through a series of emotions with your spouse and your children because they know you’re leaving. You want to be able to give and love as much as you can, but there are only so many hours in the day. And as a Marine, you’re preparing yourself mentally for deployment, but by the same token you’re also trying to prepare your family for leaving. So that’s the difficult piece.”
“Once deployment day comes - and you never really know what day it will be until that very day - it’s a hard day. You have to be strong for your family, and there’s a lot of tears, but I don’t usually let them see me cry. The toughest piece is right before you get on the bus, because you know they’re going to be crying. And the hardest piece is when they say, ‘Daddy don’t go’ because you know you don’t want to leave. Those words will crush the strongest of Marines. And the potential is that you will never see them again, and they’ll never see you. But we suck it up, we stand tall and we get on the bus and we do the mission because we know we have to do it - not for us, but for them. But it doesn’t make it any easier. So that’s the toughest part of deployment - leaving.”
“Once you get on the bus, everyone kind of puts their iPod on and struggles through the drive to whatever plane we’re going on, and then we have to shut it down completely. Take those emotions and put them away, tuck them down deep inside because those emotions will cripple you. They’ll cripple you and I’ve seen it.”
“And then you’re in country, and in the cycle. You’re in the numb cycle just trying to get through the job. You work 12-18 hours a day, up to 3 days at a time, making sure that you’re staying alive and that your buddies are staying alive. At about the two or three month mark, that’s when your emotions hit you and you think, ‘I’m ready to go home. I’m tired. I’ve seen my buddy die. I’ve seen death and destruction.’”
“The things that have gotten me through those times are the times where I can find a sense of normal. I don’t wear any rings or any jewelry when I’m out on patrol. So I’ll go back to wherever I’m sleeping, and I’ll take out my wedding band and put it on because that’s the only normal thing I have. That’s the only thing that’s not green and tan, sand and bullets, and all that stuff. That’s the only thing that’s home to me. And that’s the little bit of normalcy I have in my life.”
Saddleback Offers Hope Both at Home and Overseas
Gonzalez describes how the Saddleback community reach out to his family during a time when they were working hard to cope with his constant deployment. “Throughout the time where I was repeatedly being deployed, some military wives from Saddleback stepped out and invited Christine to an Easter service at the Lake Forest campus. I called her one night when I was in Afghanistan and she said, ‘I’ve found a church! There’s this guy, Rick Warren, who made me cry and talked directly to me, or so it seemed. When you come home, we have to go to the church.’ And like a good Marine, I listened, and we went to the church. And I knew the care and feeding of my family while I’m gone was going to take place at Saddleback. A lot of churches and organizations don’t really take care of the family as a whole, but we have come to find that here - they have provided that care and feeding for my family while I’m deployed. And that’s what we needed.”
Saddleback Church has long been focused on serving, supporting and caring for the ‘least, the last, the lost,’ but military families are not usually plugged in to these categories. We think of these families as being just as strong, tough and capable as their father or mother who is serving in the military. They are all of these things, but they also need a unique support system to keep them healthy and thriving.
That’s where Saddleback Church comes in. When military personnel deploy overseas, they often lose connection to their church family. There is limited time to phone home or send emails, and a sense of normalcy can be hard to find on base, especially in Afghanistan. The San Clemente campus has been instrumental in supporting military families based on Camp Pendleton.
Camp Leatherneck is the military base in Afghanistan where Gonzalez is now stationed after his most recent deployment. This base houses more than 60,000 military men and women from around the world. Saddleback Camp Leatherneck is our church’s first international campus and the first campus to be located on a military base.
Jeff Gonzalez is focused on bringing a sense of family and calm to the troops stationed on base though his campus. His passion to provide this sense of normalcy comes from his own experience, and the experience of his family, as they weathered his repeated deployments.
“When I got promoted to being an officer, they said, ‘Your job is to take care of your marines.’ I said, ‘Alright, what does that really mean? Take care of them on the battlefield?’ Well, they’re having their own battlefield at home and that battlefield is a battlefield of emotions, a battlefield of depression, a battlefield of just dealing with life, a battlefield of not knowing how to deal with things.”
“As I was deploying back and forth, I saw my family succeeding despite all the ups and downs. I looked inward and thought, ‘What is it that I’m doing right, and how can I duplicate that for other people?’ I realized that there are some key things that Saddleback offers that I want to be able to give back to my Marines. One is that direct relationship with God. Next is the small group atmosphere - a group of people taking care of each other.”
“And the Marines do that - but we call it a “fire team.” A fire team is the small group of individuals that, when you’re in the battlefield, and you look to your left and your right - these are the dudes that are next to you that do three things - one, make sure you’re still alive, two, that you have enough ammunition, and three, if you happen to get shot, they’re there with that first aid kit to render ‘buddy aid’ to you.”
“A small group does the same thing that fire team does. And that’s how my family weathered my deployment. The fire team at Saddleback was taking care of my family while I was gone. And now I’m taking that and trying to show other people how to do that through Camp Leatherneck.”
“As a Marine, my job is to have mission accomplishment. And mission accomplishment for Camp Leatherneck means that we take care of our families . . . they pay a huge price in this war.”
“So if I can take a little bit of what we have here at Saddleback and give my men and women a little bit of “normal” and a little bit of home, then maybe one marriage will be okay. Just maybe, one person will feel normal. Just maybe, one person will say ‘I want to give my life to the Lord.’ Mission accomplished.”
To learn more about Saddleback Camp Leatherneck or to support the families of our deployed Saddleback members, click here.