“Are you a veteran?”
The chipper volunteer didn’t ask that to any of the men sitting in the Veterans Administration Hospital, but she asked Tonya Gonzales.
“They just assume that you’re with a man,” Gonzales said, her golden locks glistening in the late morning sunlight on the deck of her Hamilton Lake home.
Gonzales — who in July marked 20 years with the Air National Guard — has three associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree and works full time as the chief compliance officer for a children’s facility in Fort Wayne. She raised her two children as a single mother through weekend training and four deployments.
“Everything has revolved around my military schedule,” Gonzales said.
Friday, she learned she was being considered for a chief position, which would allow her to advance to the top tier of the National Guard. She has held the rank of first sergeant the past seven years and has been honored as first sergeant of the year by the The 434th Air Refueling Wing, the largest KC-135R Stratotanker unit in the Air Force Reserve Command.
Bullets whizzed through a hot wall of dust as Gonzales exited an aircraft at the foreign base, her belongings strapped to her back. Separated from her unit, she knew no one at the medical facility in Kirkuk where she would serve as night shift supervisor.
“I didn’t sleep very much,” Gonzales said of her 2007 deployment. “It was after that deployment it started to get real.”
Her children were getting older; her son in middle school and both of them unhappy with her deployment. She credits her parents, who cared for her two children when she was gone, and St. John the Baptist Parish in Fort Wayne for helping keep her family strong.
“We had limited phone calls,” Gonzales said. They communicated mainly through email.
A registered respiratory therapist, Gonzales did medical duty during her early years in the National Guard, serving in its security forces and maintenance division in her later years.
During that ’07 deployment, Gonzales was lonely and in one of the most dangerous regions of the world.
“I came back, my son was a lot taller,” she said. “I missed that ... It was very hard on my family ... The kids were fighting. The kids were stressed out.”
Her son, Brenden, and daughter, Taylor, are now grown and living independent lives. Gonzales delights in her two grandchildren.
Gonzales joined the National Guard after her divorce. She was working for a Fort Wayne dentist, who encouraged her to enlist when her children were 4 and 5 years old. She did it for the extra income and benefits.
“In basic training I was the oldest,” she said. “I was 23 years old.”
She picked the National Guard because it allowed a furlough between basic training and other education and service. She’s done four deployments, the first two to Iraq.
“My view on patriotism has changed,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot over the 20 years that has changed me, it’s molded me.”
There are 408,790 veterans in Indiana. Of those, more than 6 percent are female. They serve on a variety of details in active duty, said Steuben County Veterans Service Officer Alex Dobson, from medical professionals to convoy leaders in war zones.
Gonzales did a tour in Quatar and not long ago completed another in the Middle Eastern theater.
Looking for a change, Gonzales bought a spacious house on Hamilton Lake three years ago. With her job and her military service, her time is still structured, and she notes concern about the void that might be left when she retires from the National Guard.
When she wears her uniform, she said many people take the time to thank her for her service. In plain clothes, she is rarely pegged for a soldier.
She said she’s learned not to let it break her down or make her feel less respected. With strength, patriotism, resilience and drive, Gonzales will keep living for the American dream.