Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." While dozens of people have repeated this adage, a particularly notable fan of the statement is Sgt. 1st Class Gilbrando "Rondo" Garza.
"That's one of the quotes I live by," says the highly decorated Army veteran who's planning to retire in December. "Another one I remember is that when times get rough, nothing is so bad that it couldn't be worse." These are both excellent mottos for a soldier – particularly one who serves the country during a time of war. Since he enlisted nearly 25 years ago, Garza has served six Operation Iraqi Freedom tours for a total of three years; has collected multiple awards for bravery, combat and service; and was even assigned to the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas – the unit that was credited with the capture of Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13, 2003. So how did this Alice, Texas, native with five siblings and a passion for boxing become a war hero? It all started in 1986.
"I never intended to join the Army," Garza says. "My parents tried to talk me out of it, but I knew it was the best for me. I joined to obtain discipline." Garza started out in Fort Stewart, Ga., as a forward observer, which, according to Garza, "is similar to a scout. The recruiter told me I would be a distance away from the battlefield watching with binoculars and calling indirect fire missions. He was right, but he never told me I would have to walk miles and miles with a rucksack to get there. It was a physical and mental job."
Apart from some culture shock and a few initial confrontations with fellow soldiers, the first wave of Garza's military career went smoothly. He continued his childhood hobby by serving as an Army boxer; rose in rank to staff sergeant; and refers to these years as "a major learning experience in cultural awareness and sensitivity." In 1994, Garza made his first exit, receiving an honorable discharge after deciding he'd "had enough of the Army … and was ready to start a new career in the civilian sector." Upon entering the civilian sector, Garza juggled several jobs, working as a defensive tactics instructor for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; a primary fitness instructor for the Army Reserve; and a primary aerobics instructor for YMCA Corpus Christi. He also provided landscaping services to tenants in his apartment complex and ran his own fruit cup stand.
"I was a motivated civilian," Garza says. "But knowing that reserve retirement is not the same as active duty, I rejoined the military in 2000. My priority was to provide support and medical benefits for my children. When I went back in, I took the same job [and] the same rank, and I was stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas. It was almost like I never left." As a result of Sept. 11, 2001 and the following War on Terror, the second phase of Garza's military career was filled with more honors, but also with more challenges.
"Sept. 11, 2001 had the biggest impact on my military career, and it's probably the hardest subject to talk about," Garza says. "At the time, I was a platoon sergeant in charge of 21 young, motivated, hardcore [and] physically and mentally fit soldiers. We were preparing to conduct training that morning when we heard of the attack. One soldier brought a TV to our training room, and we witnessed the attack as a platoon. "Some of these same men never made it back during our tour – 2003 to 2004 – and some received some of the highest awards: Silver Stars, Bronze Stars [and] Purple Hearts. These medals might mean something to some people, but to me, they are just cloth and metal."
Losing friends and colleagues is never easy. Even as Garza and his unit of heroes returned following Hussein's capture, the welcome "was outstanding, but sad because we did not all come home." Garza continued to brave the challenges of danger and 125-degree temperatures in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 by advising the Iraqi Army in the Diyala province, "the most insurgent-infested area during the time." And following a brief return to Fort Hood, he was redeployed to Iraq in 2009 to work in governance and economics at the Kirkuk province before heading back to his current station, Fort Hood.
Following his exit in December, this hero will undoubtedly be missed by his comrades in the Army. As for his experiences, he offers the following thoughts: "I believe in the mission. Most soldiers do. If the country was all on the same side, it would be easier for us to continue our mission. It's not easy leaving family, but it's important for them to know that we choose to serve. And once we choose to serve, we follow orders without complaining. It's our job.
"My support comes from my family and friends. There are too many to mention. My strength comes from prayer and my faith in [the Lord]. God bless the United States of America and all our service members and their families." Although Garza's future as a civilian remains undecided, he is dedicated to a bootcamp fitness program at Flex Studio and is considering taking a position as a civilian contractor in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
A Complete List of Garza's Military Awards and Decorations:
- Two Bronze Star Medals (Operations Iraqi Freedom)
- Five Army Commendation Medals
- Seven Army Achievement Medals
- One Meritorious Unit Award
- Six Army Good Conduct Awards
- One National Defense Service Medal
- One Global War on Terror Service Medal
- One Iraqi Campaign Medal
- Three NCO Professional - Development Awards
- One Humanitarian Service Medal (Hurricane Katrina Disaster)
- One Combat Action Badge
- One Air Assault Badge
- One Army Physical Fitness Badge for Fitness Excellence