Honoring Veterans: Verna Gonzales


Every year, many returning veterans continue their service to our country by participating in 21CSC programs. Several 21CSC member organizations operate programs specifically designed to engage former military service members in public lands stewardship. Throughout November, we will feature stories about some of these programs and the extraordinary people who serve in them. 

From Mt. Adams Institute – 

I was born and raised in Texas, but was recently living in Denver, Colorado.  I was enlisted in the Army from 2009-2013 as a Civil Affairs Specialist (commonly mistaken for Public Affairs). Prior to the Army I put myself through my undergraduate degree with a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2008 and post Army, I forced myself to somehow complete my Masters of Science in the Administration of Security and Justice.  The Criminal Justice field was unfortunately not my cup of tea and so I am now falling back on my love of Anthropology.

I was not looking for a change in career when I stumbled upon the Craigslist ad for the VetsWork AmeriCorps program through the Mt. Adams Institute, but it was so enticing in fact, that I applied the next day. I had lost a sense of service to the country I love so much (that I had experienced while in the Army), that jobs I took on after the Army, were just that.  They were jobs.  My goal is to start a career in a field that I love and provide a service to my community.

Taking that step in drastically changing my career path felt risky. I’ve done archaeological field work in the past, but it mostly involved curation. I am currently assigned to Joseph, OR at the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.  I am in the middle of nowhere and it is beautiful; a little piece of the U.S. untouched by traffic lights, major crime, and major retail stores.

Week one of the program was amazing.  Our orientation into the program consisted of housing all the VetsWork AmeriCorps Interns into one bunk house filled with awkward laughter-filled introductions, motivational talks, necessary paperwork, and outdoor activities. Best of all the first week allowed us to grow a network that will probably last a lifetime.  I got to meet men and women with similar backgrounds and the greatest motivational and supporting team ever (no coaxing for me to tell you that, it’s the big hardy truth).

A summer thunderstorm rolls into Hell's Canyon

A summer thunderstorm rolls into Hell’s Canyon

Two and half months into the program and the home sickness kicked in. I started to experience what my sponsor called “Dog Withdrawals” (due to the fact I had to leave my dogs back home to be taken care of by a loved one in Colorado).  Working miles away from home and temporarily departing from those you love has made me realize something I wish to pass on to future VetsWork AmeriCorps Interns: Do not foist yourself into feeling that you abandoned those you love. Think of this as an opportunity for advancement.  An advancement that is going to put you and those you love in a better position in life whether it be financially or just simply having the satisfaction that you are doing something you can make a difference in.  I am blessed to have friends, family, and loved ones back me up on this decision 100%.

The number one most treasured thing about the internship is being able to get a first-hand glimpse at the work involved in this Archeology position with the Forest Service.  I can pick and choose the sides I like and the sides I do not like, and am able to make a clearer decision on the next steps I’ll be taking.  Today I will be taking steps to help my strength and stamina for next week’s back-country trip (I’m just going on a 2 hour hike after work). Next month I will be taking tons of GIS classes to help grow my knowledge base in the technology needed for this position.  Next year I hope to enroll at Adams State University for their Master’s program in Cultural Resource Management.

Taking a break as we cross one of the beautiful rivers in the Wallowa Mountains.

Taking a break as we cross one of the beautiful rivers in the Wallowa Mountains.

My supervisor, Tony, has been an awesome mentor and I cannot thank him enough for putting up with all my questions.  Which reminds me, for those future VetsWork AmeriCorps Interns: Ask as many questions as you can possibly think of! I’m getting quite comfortable with mapping, the pace and compass method, using GPS technology, and my overall map reading skills have definitely seen some improvement. On the personal side, I was able to receive guests this summer which helped boost my mood ten-fold.  Seeing familiar faces and introducing them to a little slice of heaven was definitely needed!

In the future, I hope to utilize the training that my sponsor, coworkers, and mentors have bestowed on me and push forward in a career in Cultural Resource Management (CRM) or Archaeology. The potential of doing what I love, learning and getting out in the field is turning out to be a dream career possibility.

Mormon Flat Cabin from the early 1900s.

Mormon Flat Cabin from the early 1900s.

Learning how to restore windows in historic structures.

Learning how to restore windows in historic structures.