Staff Sgt. J.D. Diaz-Gonzalez
J.D., a heavy equipment mechanic here at Grand Canyon National Park and National Guard member, was mobilized and sent to Iraq in January of 2003. He returned in mid-April.
After 28 and a half years in the military – four years of that on active duty with the Coast Guard and the balance in the Coast Guard Reserves and Army National Guard – mobilization wasn’t unexpected. In fact, his unit was alerted but not activated during the 1991 Gulf War. But it was sudden.
“I knew it was a possibility,” he said. “But when it actually happened, it was very fast. In two days, I was gone.”
For the first six months of his tour, he and his units ran convoys out of Tikrit in support of the 4th Infantry Div. It was a stressful time, he said, with the ever-present threat of ambush.
“When we were on the roads, it was tense,” he said. “We were always worried a situation would arise. You had to keep yourself aware. You had to keep reminding yourself that you were ‘in theater’ (in a war zone). It was tense and nerve-wracking. You had to have a mindset to do the mission and get it done.”
He said his unit was fortunate and encountered no trouble – and everyone came home.
By April of last year, he said, it appeared that the Iraqi people were warmly receiving the Americans and things appeared to be stabilizing. That changed following the capture of Saddam.
“They were giving us thumbs-up and waves and smiles,” he said. “We got a pretty good greeting. But as time went on, it got to be where there were more gestures that said ‘we don’t want you here,’ then it got uptight again.”
Most of the negative sentiment, he said, came from older Iraqis.
“A lot of them lost power and jobs,” he said. “It’s the younger generations that will benefit.”
The separation was hard on the close family. At first the mail was slow, taking up to two months and J.D.’s wife Terre found no comfort in following the war on the news. Satellite phone and e-mail weren’t available for months and even then, it meant waiting hours for a 15-minute call home or turn on the computer. They coped by staying busy, Terre with her job at the park’s Fire Suppression headquarters and with daughter Jenna’s school activities, J.D. with the mission at hand. He said that after six months in country, he was reassigned from convoy duty to overseeing his unit’s vehicle maintenance. He welcomed the change, not only because it was safer but also because it kept his mind occupied.
He was originally due to come home in the fall, but the growing instability led to a three-month extension to his tour and even after his unit’s replacements arrived, he and his fellow soldiers didn’t see their return as certain until they actually flew out. In fact, he said, it was only by a matter of days that they missed being extended in Iraq along with 25,000 troops who had to stay.
The sense of being home at last came when the plane, an Air Force C-5, landed in El Paso, Texas. “As we landed everyone on the plane was silent,” he said. “When we hit the ground, everyone yelled and cheered.”
Though J.D.’s deployment has ended, the family’s wartime anxiety hasn’t. Their son, Jose, a 2001 graduate of Grand Canyon High School and member of the Air National Guard, is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in the fall.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” J.D. said.
Also, when he returned from Iraq, he submitted his request for retirement from the Guard and upon approval he must still wait another 90 days to be completely released.
Because his first request for retirement, filed before his deployment, was put on hold, he said he won’t relax until the 90 days have passed.
Still, he said, he has no regrets about serving.
“I’m not sorry I went,” he said. “We believed we were there for a purpose,” he said. “I still think of it as a good thing, that we were there to do something. I hope it works out. Otherwise all of those soldiers who were lost have died in vain. The people who lost their lives are the heroes. They’re the ones who aren’t going to come home. They gave up the ultimate sacrifice.”
It also reminded him that he was fighting for a way of life that he was eager to get home and start living again.
“One of the things I missed the most was the freedom to do as I please,” he said. “I’m not used to being told what to do.”
He also missed simple amenities like hot showers, washing machines (“We washed our clothes in a five-gallon bucket,” he said) and clean bathrooms.
The experience also gave him and his family a newfound appreciation for each other and for the community they’ve called home for 10 years. Throughout the deployment, J.D. said that he and his family found immeasurable support and comfort from their friends, coworkers and parishoners.
“I depended on our friends,” said Terre. “I could never go anywhere without someone asking about J.D. I’d come home in the winter and the driveway would be shoveled and the wood would be stacked by the door.”
“It took a big load off my mind,” J.D. added. “And it was beautiful, the cards and packages I received. It really means a lot and made me realize what I have.”
He was awed and grateful for the unexpected reception to his homecoming as well.
“It was touching and heartwarming,” he said. “It’s nice to know in a small community like this that everyone stands by and supports you. You can’t buy this. It means a lot."