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A soldier’s life

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How do you get from picking fruit in the San Joaquin Valley at 6 to being a year away from retiring after a distinguished 32-year career in the Army? With a plan, says Master Sgt. Gabriel Fierro Sr.

The ninth of 11 children of an Apache/Hispanic father and a Yacqui mother, Fierro honors his American Indian and Aztec heritage. But as he was growing up, not many others did.

The family eventually raised money for a down payment and moved to a gang-infested neighborhood in San Diego. “We lived in the barrio, and the only way we survived is that when someone got into a fight with one of us, everybody else ran out the house to defend him.”

He experienced constant racism. “I had more than three strikes against me in high school. I was an Indian and Mexican, I was small, 5-6, I had bad acne so I was ugly, and I was poor. Two days after my 17th birthday, I was at an Army recruiting office, and then I was gone.”

Fierro said when he was in the ninth grade a counselor asked what prison he was going to go to. “That conversation made me think. If you don’t have a plan, you don’t have a future.”

At Fort Carson in Colorado, Fierro learned to be a door gunner – that’s the soldier who sits in the door of a helicopter with an M-60 machine gun. “I loved Fort Carson. When I heard what my job would be, I thought ‘Wow, that’s the coolest job.’” Until he discovered lugging the 24-pound machine gun 15 kilometers was part of the deal.

Later, he served in Germany. “You could go to Paris for $150.” He joined the USO, played piano, was lead singer for a band, wrote songs and published poetry. “I wanted to see the world, and no one was going to give it to me. I had to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Fierro said he found racism everywhere. “So I had to prove what kind of person I was, what was in my heart, my strength and integrity.” He finished active duty and moved to Oklahoma where he discovered that the skills of a machine gunner did not transfer to civilian life. A job as a loan collector “showed me what you could do in administration. I told myself, you’ve used your body, but you’ve got a brain too. Why don’t you start using it?”

He signed up for the Army Reserve and volunteered for Desert Storm, “but they sent me to St. Louis. I asked an officer why I was in St. Louis when I wanted to go to Saudi Arabia. He said both places had words in their names. That was close enough for the Army.” Fierro provided support for soldiers being demobilized. “I made sure records were correct, that soldiers got their awards, and that they would receive the benefits they were entitled to.”

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Back in Oklahoma, he put together another band. “I worked on my music; I worked on the Army.” In 1992, he started at Columbia College part-time. “I had an epiphany. I was later going to be a commodity in the business world, so I asked myself what I could do to succeed in that world. I needed a plan.” He decided to spend the next 15 years – until his retirement from the Army – getting ready.

“I love life and want to savor it. I’m thankful for the things that have happened,” Fierro said. “I look at my grandkids and ask what I want them to remember about me. I want to teach them to look at what’s in their hearts. I tell them, ‘Let your actions speak for themselves.’”

Fierro did that when he joined the Active Reserve and took on the job of Army recruiter. “It’s the hardest job in the Army. It’s the one I had to do.” And his plan? He learned the skills that go with being a recruiter – persuasion, acting, listening. “I studied acting so I could present myself better. Then I joined Toast Masters to learn to speak better. My heroes were Neil Diamond and Elvis. I wanted to be an all-around performer. I can apply for a job in business and show them I can sell their product, speak about it, and sing about it if necessary.”

His was a well-thought-out career, with a goal and an understanding of what it would take to get there. “Most people say ‘life got in my way’ when you ask them why they didn’t fulfill their goals. I say life is a way of testing how much you want it. Things happen. It’s what you do about it that counts.”

Fierro was given the job of finding, training and putting in place enough recruiters to build up Army forces to an acceptable level. The Army wanted a total of 1,776 recruiters. “I was offered the job and turned it down. I told the general I needed funds and 10 people to work with. I got what I needed, hired the five best recruiters in the country for my team, traveled all over, and completed the mission two months early.”

Fierro volunteered 10 times for duty in Iraq, before being sent in 2007; he completed 130 combat missions. “Our job was to support provincial governments. We set up a micro-loan program – people could set up their own businesses so Al Queda wouldn’t be paying them to build IEDs. It was an effective program. We couldn’t get the money out there fast enough.”

The loan program gave people hope, he said. “People cleaned up the streets, opened markets, took control of their own lives again. You’re there to give people back something they had lost. I loved that job, loved being there. It was hard, but I knew what I was doing was important. The Army has been an honorable job for me, a life. The Army has given me the best opportunity to do so much more and to be more than I was.” Fierro has nearly completed his master’s degree, part of his preparation for his next career.

In a year, Fierro expects to be somewhere in the business community, taking all that he is, all that he has learned, and all that he believes and dreams into a new world.

“I tell my children, ‘don’t regret what you didn’t do, do it; don’t live with regret.’ I will not have regrets. What I didn’t do wasn’t that important.”