Saltwater Portrait

Oscar Gonzales: Support helps veteran heal

Says Sussex community responsible for his recovery
October 17, 2017

Oscar Gonzales grew up dreaming that one day he'd be G.I. Joe.

"I was a military brat," he said as he sipped a hot cup of coffee at a diner in Georgetown. His father was an Army man, and so was his grandfather. Growing up with four brothers in upstate New York, Oscar's childhood was filled with battles in the yard, crab apple bombs flying through the sky. Inside the home, everything was in perfect order.

A board listed each of the Gonzales kids' duties for the week. And if they didn't complete their assignment, Oscar said, the outcome was top secret.

"It was strict, but it created character," he said.

By the time he turned 17, after settling with his family in Delaware and attending Glasgow High School, Oscar enlisted. The recruiter didn't have much work to do – Oscar was in ROTC and had attended pre-basic training at the Delaware National Guard training site in Bethany Beach. When his 18th birthday arrived, he was ready to kick-start his military career.

Basic training was a piece of cake, he said, humbly bragging that it just got him in better shape. That training was followed by more training until he was finally deployed on his first overseas assignment in the infantry.

"The greatest thing I learned in the military was my values," he said. "Army values are honor, duty, respect, selfless service, integrity and personal courage. If you actually use those, for real, you will make it everywhere."

Oscar said he can't disclose where he was, or what he was doing on his first mission, other than its name, Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States' global war on terrorism launched in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"My oldest son was born the day I landed overseas," he said. He was only 20 years old, with a young family waiting for him at home, when he woke up in a hospital bed. "That's part of the life," he said, declining to describe the incident that led to a broken back and traumatic brain injury. "I'm not a label," he said, avowing he doesn't let disabilities define him. "Life is hard for me as a disabled vet, but life isn't too bad with Army values."

For years Oscar struggled with the pain from his injury. On top of that, he said, he struggled with partial pay and his physical inability to fight for his country or work full time.

"Being injured, I wasn't supposed to be working," he said. "I had medical bills, so I had to stay in the Army. We suffered for years."
Oscar said he did what he could to support his growing family, anything he could find, including cutting grass. He sought medical retirement from the military in 2007.

"I've always been a proud person," he said. "But when it comes down to it, you'll go to a church kitchen or go on food stamps."

In summer of 2014, everything changed for Oscar. He had been down and out for years, he said, unable to secure a full-time job, and struggling with the limited assistance provided by the Army. When he was invited to participate in Operation SEAs the Day, an all-expenses-paid beach week event for wounded soldiers and their families, he headed to Bethany Beach with a hard face.

"And I came out smiling," he said. "It was a life-changing event. They made us feel so welcome. It was about them taking a special interest in each one of us."

The Gonzales family – Oscar, his wife, Delfina, and their three boys – returned again the following year. Oscar and Delfina renewed their vows along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gonzalez family finally got back on their feet. Through the people they met through Operation SEAs the Day, Oscar and his family also were gifted an SUV and worked with Habitat for Humanity to build their very own American-made home in Sussex County.

"Everybody from Bethany, everyone from the area, that could possibly put their hands on our home did," he said. Before the carpeting went in, the family went from room to room, writing their favorite prayers on the floor. Oscar's faith and respect for his country is woven throughout every aspect of his life, he said.

"I wouldn't have anything without my values, without God," Oscar said. "If you don't have true faith, well, 'If you always did what you've always done, then you always get what you've always got. And while what you've always got may have been good, there is always better.' I was told that a long time ago, and it just stuck with me. It's very true."

Now it's Oscar's turn to give back. "This is my home, and it's not just the house," he said. "Sussex County is my home. The people here make me feel important, like what I do means something."

He and his three sons recently unveiled a shadow box in Sussex Superior Court, outside the room where Veterans Court is held, showcasing the medals of local heroes. Oscar is also a mentor for the court, helping other veterans get through their troubles.

"It's so rewarding," he said. "To see something impressive is watching somebody change their life." He also assists Delaware Commission of Veterans Affairs and Delaware Veteran Awareness Center in Greenwood, trying to connect veterans to the resources they need.

"I'm dealing with my issues like everybody else – just like everybody else puts their pants on one leg at a time," he said, smiling over his now finished cup of coffee. "I appreciate this community. Because of them, I feel like I'm on top of the world."