FRANKFORT, Ky. –
"I wasn’t 22 years old anymore. I wasn't fresh out of college. I was 34, had a house, and married -- with a kid. I wasn't in a position to up and change careers," said 2nd Lt. Orlando J. Gonzalez, Recruiting and Retention Battalion. "It's been three years since I graduated from OCS (Officer Candidate School), and this was my sixth time boarding for an officer position, and this one worked out."
On Sept. 24, 2021, in a room packed with family, friends, and respected colleagues at Bowman Field Armory, Gonzalez ended his 16 years of military service as an enlisted service member to begin his officer career.
Transitioning from enlisted to officer was a process years in the making for Gonzalez. With his dream coming to fruition, he had an opportunity to sit back and process everything he went through, every hurdle he had to jump, every no, but most importantly, every YES.
"So, how far back and deep are we trying to go?" questioned Gonzalez in an equally serious and joking demeanor. "Well, it was October 21, 1984, in Puerto Rico," he smiled as he carried on.
Born in Puerto Rico, Gonzalez spent his younger years like many kids from the generation: latchkey. With divorced and distracted parents, he and his two sisters often lacked accountability from a responsible parent.
Just after his 11th birthday, he found himself in a new place, separated from his sisters. His mother was arrested and in jail. Having a different dad than his siblings, he was sent to live with his uncle in Rhode Island.
"Every kid wants to be with their parents," said Gonzales. "That moment I went to live with my uncle is probably the best thing that happened to me. I don't mean to say that my mom going to jail was the best thing that ever happened to me, because at the moment, it was terrible. Had I not gone to live with my uncle, I never would have been exposed to so much."
For the first time in his life, Gonzalez had a positive male role model that had a degree and held a steady job. He experienced restaurants for the first time, was in the band, and participated in extracurricular activities.
"He even took me to the opera!” Gonzalez exclaimed. "For the first time, I got to do normal stuff like that. He played a major role in the man I am today."
That moment in time was short-lived. After a few years and upon his mother's release, Gonzalez reunited with his mom on the West Coast. The next few years were a blur. There were new schools in a new part of the world and no one looking over his shoulder to ensure he was doing the right things.
"I actually finished high school with a 1.8 GPA," said Gonzalez. "I had no kind of aspirations for college or scholarships. I was just out there, flapping in the wind."
Gonzalez has a very clear memory of answering his corded, kitchen wall phone a year after graduating high school to the voice of Corporal Peter Concepción, an Army recruiter. That was just the beginning. He joined and has been in the military ever since. Enlisting as an ammunition specialist, Gonzalez claimed that of the specific jobs he was eligible for based on Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery or ASVAB scores, that one sounded the coolest.
His enlistment was a quick process, and before he could blink, Gonzalez found himself living in Vilseck, Germany. He soon married, and shortly after, became a father. Like many Soldiers, Gonzalez joined to gain professional experience and pursue a degree.
After a tour to Iraq, a marriage in disarray, and not one college credit in the books, Gonzalez had to take a step back and evaluate his future career plans. Separated from his daughter at the time, he discovered that if he pursued recruiting, there was a good chance he could land a location in proximity to his daughter.
It worked! Gonzalez was relocated to Harrisonburg, Virginia, and continued living out his military career and fulfilling his responsibility as a dad. It was not long before he found himself to be a single parent. Career conflicted; Gonzalez got out of the military to provide a stable environment for his daughter.
His time out of service was short-lived. Gonzalez wanted to pursue college, and civilian life was not working out as planned. Just six months after leaving active duty, Gonzalez joined the Kentucky National Guard. Changing unit assignments a few times as a new combat medic, it was not long before he found his way back to recruiting.
Gonzalez's first pursuit toward becoming an officer was in 2013. He enrolled in the ROTC program at the University of Louisville, but he quickly found the program’s demands were too much for him to balance in addition to his work, Guard, and home life.
Refusing to give up, Gonzalez finished his degree. He graduated magna cum laude while raising his daughter, working full time, and meeting his soul mate.
"I was anxious going to college after graduating high school with a 1.8 GPA. My mom graduated high school--I have no idea if my dad graduated high school--but myself, my cousins, my siblings, we are all the first of our family to go to college," Gonzalez expressed. "I had this realization; I am not dumb – I just had horrible family structure."
Upon graduating from U of L, Gonzalez began the intensive 18-month traditional OCS program. This was his second pursuit toward becoming an officer.
After completing OCS, Staff Sgt. Gonzalez had a choice to make. Does he remain enlisted to keep his full-time job? Or does he pin his officer rank and accept the risk of changing careers?
Three years after graduating OCS and after boarding for five other full-time officer positions, Gonzalez walked into the board for the Alpha Company commander position within Recruiting and Retention. This was the same position he had been told no for just two years prior.
With two fresh "noes" still running through his head, Gonzalez approached the board with confidence. He was well-practiced, well-rehearsed and after eight years of recruiting experience, he knew he had the leadership capabilities within him to excel in this position.
"And I got it," Gonzalez said with tears in his eyes. "Finally."
It is no secret that Gonzalez had been chasing, running, and ran over by life, his career, and by missed and granted opportunities; he never allowed his life’s challenges to keep him from becoming the leader he was born to be.
"It is my hardships in life that made me a good recruiter and hopefully a good commander," said Gonzalez. "I'm not the first kid who had a parent in jail. I'm not the first working, single parent trying to go to school, nor immigrant, nor minority. It is only fair that other people -- like those who have gone through what I have been through -- understand that there is a place for them to be great, here in the Kentucky National Guard."
During his pinning ceremony, Gonzalez credited his many colleagues for his ability to keep going via encouraging text messages, emails, and in-person conversations. They inspired him to keep going until his “yes” would come.
"There are a few people that have seen me go through the whole thing, and that's my family," Gonzalez said with glassed-over eyes. "Thank you for being there with me the entire time."
A few weeks after pinning second lieutenant, Gonzalez assumed the commanding role of Alpha Company, Recruiting and Retention Battalion. This is his first of many roles as a proud Kentucky National Guard officer.