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A Vote's too Valuable to Forsake to This American

By Sgt. William P. Bradner
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT BLISS, Texas, Sept. 28, 2000 – More than 40 percent of Army personnel didn't take the time to vote during the 1996 presidential election. During this year's election, at least one soldier will be in line waiting for the doors to open.

Spc. Giraldo Gonzalez of William Beaumont Army Medical Center here lists one of his immediate goals as voting in the 2000 election. He's encouraging everyone in his section to do the same.

"It's a privilege, one that is too valuable to forsake," according to the Cuban-born naturalized U.S. citizen. "My co-workers, more than half didn't care. I'm trying to push them to vote. For me, it's even more exciting, because this is the first time in my life I can have a choice."

Gonzalez fled Cuba in a 10-foot boat with five friends. They built a small motor by jury-rigging a propeller onto an engine used for fumigation. They left behind everything for a chance to win their freedom of choice in America. They became lost between the Bahamas and Florida, but were sighted by a fishing boat and picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. Their ordeal lasted four days.

"It was dangerous and risky," he said, "but worth it to live in the United States."

Gonzalez was a medical doctor in Havana, Cuba, before fleeing to the states. He's now an operating room technician at Beaumont. He gave up his life there to, in his words, "become a person."

"It was hard to live there," he explained. "It was hard to do anything without being scrutinized. I was tired of living the life where you have two faces.

"This is me," he said. "This is who I am."

Gonzalez recalled friends and family members who were fired or denied job opportunities because of they expressed views not shared by the political party. He spoke of times being "obligated" to participate in anti-American or pro-Cuban marches and rallies, out of fear of repercussions at his hospital if he failed to attend. He remembered the time his mother was denied the chance to attend a career-development program because it took place outside Cuba.

"It was hard leaving my mother and all my family," he admitted, "but she was afraid for me and wanted what was best for me."

Gonzalez had no contact with his family in Cuba for almost four years after arriving in the United States, but he doesn't regret his decision. He recently re-established contact by phone, but he doesn't see himself going home to visit any time soon.

"I'd like to go, but I simply can't right now. Maybe someday," he said. Until then, he's focusing on his life in America. He enrolled in an English language course and began taking medical assistant classes shortly after arriving in Florida, but changed tracks after visiting in-laws in Panama.

"One of my relatives there was a U.S. soldier," Gonzalez explained. "I used to say 'the last thing in my life I'm gonna do is be a soldier,' but that was in Cuba."

Gonzalez was impressed with what he saw on the U.S. military base. He saw the Army as a melting pot of American society, and remembered the soldiers he met as being professional, treated well and having lives of their own. He was so impressed that he enlisted shortly after returning from vacation.

His next step was to become a citizen.

"No one influenced me (to become a citizen)," he said. "It was my love of this country and my desire to serve in an unrestricted capacity."

He began a 10-month process of paperwork and took the oath of citizenship just a few months ago. His study guide contained more than 200 questions on the history and government of our nation, but the most difficult part, he said, was the red tape.

"The Army didn't really help in any way," he said. "I did it all on my own through the immigration office." The only assistance: His co-workers helped him understand the government and U.S. politics.

"Becoming a citizen was my way of saying 'thank you' for the opportunity to become what I have dreamed," he said.

Gonzalez faces a couple more examinations before attaining all his goals. One he intends to take in the not-too-distant future is the U.S. Medical License Examination.

"I'm not prepared to take it yet, but I will be," he said.

"It tastes better -- the triumph -- when you attain your goals on your own," he explained. "I don't have a lot, but everything I have came through my sweat. After four years in America, I feel better and trust myself more. I've discovered more potential that I never knew I had before."

He has three pieces of advice to share. He encourages those newly arriving in the United States to "learn the language and the culture because it's a whole new life. I haven't forgotten I'm Cuban -- my culture, religion, and folklore -- but you have to adapt to the new culture."

The biggest differences between America and anywhere else, according to Gonzalez, are you can be a person here and you can be whatever you want. "You don't have to be rich to reach your dreams, you just have to work hard," he said.

His final piece of advice: Vote.

"People complain, but they don't play their role," he said.

(Sgt. William P. Bradner is assigned to the Beaumont Army Medical Center Public Affairs Office.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageOperating room technician Spc. Giraldo Gonzalez (right) helps a student prepare for a test on identifying surgical instruments at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, Fort Bliss, Texas. Gonzalez, a doctor in Cuba, escaped from his homeland in a small boat, recently became a U.S. citizen, and today looks forward to voting in this year's presidential elections. Photo by Sgt. William P. Bradner, USA.   
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