Being out on the front lines in Iraq, most people would think that their armor would save their lives.
However, that is not always the case.
Thomas Mendez, now a senior at Eastern New Mexico University, has experienced that – and so much more – in his two deployments to Iraq.
Rather than follow the story on the news or cheerlead for or root against the war, Mendez chose at age 19 to join the fight. He started his journey in the Marines when he went to Roswell to get training through the Job Corps. From there, he talked to a recruiter and after enlistment and boot camp, graduated from the School of Infantry in August of 2005.
From there Mendez went to Iraq with the 3rd battalion, 5th Marines as a rifleman. During his pumps (deployments), his platoon would find shelter anywhere they could, mostly in abandoned houses.
When staying in the houses the team would stack sandbags along the walls for protection.
“The best protection is not metal or the armor,” Mendez said. “The best protection is the earth.”
During combat when shots were being fired, the Marines would often take shelter behind these sandbags, or their armored personnel vehicles. From there, they would help the rest of the platoon either take cover or with combat. But in the Marines, the sound of gunfire draws their attention; that is, Marines go after the shooter, rather than retreat or even hold ground.
Outside of combat, the people in the platoon would share about their families, and lives they had back home.
“It makes the people they are working with more personal,” Mendez said, “and less like they are just coworkers.”
Mendez found his best friend in the Marines, but he also found friendship in a dog – and just because of companionship.
During a patrol mission one day, his platoon had some EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) bomb squad dogs walking the front with them. One of the dogs picked up a scent of an IED (improvised explosive device) and alerted Mendez. He immediately turned the other way. After the fact, he was told it was filled with a high amount of explosives.
Today, Mendez came out of the Marines unscathed and thankful for all the things and people that saved his life. And just as his life was saved by a canine, his academic career was resuscitated by a dog – the ENMU Greyhound, an irony he has no problem smiling about.
Mendez read about how troops returning home to college faced a tough road; in fact, government data shows that more than 88 percent of the former military people who start college upon returning home quit after the first year, and never return. Mendez will not only pick up the bachelor’s he earned here, he will also get his associate’s degree.
After that, Mendez plans to move to California and seek jobs in his field, but he still lives with the experiences he went through in Iraq. And he knows he has time, something he sees differently now that he is facing non-life threatening challenges – though with his studies, he’s excited about what’s next. But he’s not going to rush it.
There’s no need. He has time, and he plans to use it wisely.
“Time is the best coping mechanism,” Mendez said. “Time heals all wounds.”