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Voices: On Memorial Day, Recalling Resilience at West Point

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Image: Diana Gamboa graduated 30 years ago this Memorial Day from West Point Military Academy.
Diana Gamboa graduated 30 years ago this Memorial Day from West Point Military Academy.Diana Gamboa

Memorial Day is particularly significant for me this year. It coincides with a very special anniversary – my graduation from West Point. On that day 30 years ago, I walked out to our graduation exercises to receive my diploma and be sworn into active duty. I was adorned in full dress and white gloves, one of 84 women in the Class of 1984. We were the fifth class of women graduates at the once all-male institution. That day, a flood of memories filled my head and heart.

Only four years before we had been a gaggle of high school graduates awaiting our fate. That crisp morning when we entered as freshmen, most kids sat next to their parents, but my mom could only afford to buy my plane ticket there so I was on my own. It was better this way; we had already said tearful goodbyes. Most of the kids around me were inching away from sobbing moms and huggy dads.

I am very proud to be a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, very proud to be among the first women there. Like so many Americans, I stand tall this Memorial Day in honor of my father, my grandfather and my classmates - both men and women – for the generosity of their service and especially for those who gave their lives in service of our country.

Sometimes it comes up that I’m a West Point graduate and people ask if it was hard. It was.

The interesting thing is that the challenges are different for everyone. I watched classmates break down because they couldn’t take being away from family, and others left because being told how to roll your socks was the last straw. I’d grown up the second child in a Catholic, military, Mexican-American family with discipline, order, rules – who doesn’t roll their socks?

Like so many Americans, I stand tall this Memorial Day in honor of my father, my grandfather and my classmates - both men and women – for the generosity of their service and especially for those who gave their lives in service of our country.

What was hard for me, as a woman? At just under 5 feet and 92 pounds, you would guess that the intense physical training was the toughest part for me. It was push-ups, sit-ups, running, though other things were easier. Crossing a wooden beam about the width of a two-by-four some 20 feet up in the air was a cake walk for me, not so much for a 6-foot guy with wide feet! (Balance beam was my specialty on the West Point gymnastics team).

Yet what was really, really tough were the academics. I was an excellent student in high school because that’s just about all I did (especially with a career military, Mexican-American, Catholic father).

There was a lot more to do in a day at West Point than just hitting the books, and that was hard. I cleaned my room to inspection perfection, attended class and formations for lunch and dinner, participated in athletics every day, had class half of Saturday and formation for church services on Sunday. That just doesn’t leave much time for studying.

On occasion, I would pass on a study session for a push-up competition. The upper-classmen would bet on who would last. Gritting it out bought me a week of a little less hazing. Hazing is a different game at West Point. It's military facts, current events, a perfect uniform and shiny shoes – and I was a master at shiny shoes!!

I often get asked, “How did you ever survive?” In all honesty, I almost didn’t. I called my mom about once a week that first year. I’d tell her I couldn’t take it anymore, and she would remind me I could always come home. Sweet Mom. Then she’d ask, “What will you tell your father?” That's all it took. “Love you too, Mom, talk to you next week!”

I did survive, and I did it by tapping into something deep inside, resilience. I learned you don’t know it’s there until you need it.

I did survive, and I did it by tapping into something deep inside, resilience. I learned you don’t know it’s there until you need it.

I found it walking 5 miles loaded with gear, packs, and rifle without a break because I was slower than others, though I refused to give up and didn’t miss a step going back. I found it just as I leapt out to catch a zip line to let go only when ordered - all over a chilly pond. If you didn’t let go you’d slam into the rocks – which one cadet did. I found it taking a couple of hard hits from a few of my male classmates; some of the hits were verbal.

I’ve been told the only reason I got into the Academy was because I was a quota – female, Hispanic. I let them know that’s probably true – but you don’t get the ring and the diploma by quota; they are both hard earned. At West Point, I did more than survive - I thrived. So much of who I am was forged through those experiences. From there I have friendships that despite our miles away will never fade.

When I look at my family, resilience has always been all around me. It’s the same grit my mom found following my Dad all over the globe as a military wife, separated from him during two tours in Vietnam and then going to Germany with four little girls in tow. Years later she was a single mom raising five kids, while working two jobs that barely made up one income.

It’s the same verve my mother’s father had when he went back a third time to get the Navy to take him in World War II, only to be turned away because they didn’t take Mexicans. Finally, in desperation they took him – all 5-feet, 4-inches and 100 pounds of him. That’s resilience.

At West Point, I came to know my grandfather as a part of our national history, a history that graces the sallyports and monuments at The Academy – Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, the Philippines. My grandfather's ship, the USS Warrick supported Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s assault on Iwo Jima. He shared stories about those days; some were quite funny, others were told through tears. To know all my grandfather did for his country made me so very proud to be his granddaughter, and I realized West Point was far easier.

My grandfather never once complained that he, along with many others, was never awarded his service honors and medals because of his race or ethnicity. For several years, my mom worked with the U.S. and Philippine governments and with help from then-Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, my grandfather finally received his full honors, including the Bronze Star. It brought things full circle since Gonzalez' father, Henry B. Gonzalez, had nominated me to the Academy.

In winter 2013, I received the phone call from my mom that my grandfather was in the hospital. My mom and I spent entire days in his hospital room, keeping him comfortable and clean. He passed with children and grandchildren by his side. I know the legacy of my American-Mexican family – grit and resilience, service to others, and family.

At West Point, I came to know my grandfather as a part of our national history, history that graces the sallyports and monuments at The Academy – Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, the Philippines.

At West Point, I learned so much more than just my degree in engineering. After completing my service in the Army and becoming restless in the corporate sector, I found a way to continue my service in education. In my work teaching high school engineering students, I had the opportunity to coach them through academic and personal challenges that tested their mettle.

Together we designed and built robots, models, and wind turbines. We worked through frustrations with wiring, software, motors; we struggled with writing and equations to calculate everything from water flow to snow loads.

The learning was magical – there was no teacher’s book with the answers to our problems. Our only hope was to stick with it – to go back through it again and see it through, using our resilience.

I shared my West Point experiences with the kids, and on occasion they came to me for guidance. One student was supporting his mother through chemotherapy treatment; I pushed him to use his organizational skills to attend school and keep his grades up. Another was certain she needed to drop her Calculus class to qualify for a scholarship. She knew I wouldn’t let her drop the course, so instead she sought more tutoring. She got a “B”, just enough to earn a substantial scholarship.

Both students found something more in themselves, just as I had at the Academy. In coaching youth, many of them tagged as "at-risk," I was helping them see that change and adversity allowed them to find their own internal fortitude.

On this Memorial Day, I am thankful for the resilience and the fortitude I learned through my family and my military family, and I am grateful for their service.

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