Escaping urban jungle, man finds ‘perfect fit’ with Army
A weapons range goes hot on a cold winter morning four years ago in Fort Lewis, Washington. The silent cold air is replaced by the snapping of gun fire as the morning dew is knocked loose off the blades of grass. Soldiers' breath is visible as they curse in despair, for they are at another range yet again, wet and freezing.
The smell of spent ammunition and wintergreen chewing tobacco is present as raindrops fall and turn into steam on the weapons' hot barrels.
Like a dense Pacific Northwest fog, the memories dissipate, and Spc. Flavio Mendoza is dragged back to reality and the clacking of fingers on a computer keyboard.
Like many soldiers, Mendoza has surmounted many challenges in his life, from growing up in a tough, urban environment to coping with the heartbreak of losing something he loved.
But through all this, he pushed forward.
The urban jungle
Raised on the northeast side of Los Angeles, Mendoza said he knew he was always destined for more than what surrounded him in his gritty, inner-city upbringing.
But with the odds stacked against him, he had to make a choice from an early age his path in life.
Spc. Flavio Mendoza, assigned to the 22nd Human Resources Company, 4th Special Troops Battalion, 4th Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, poses for a photo on Fort Carson, Colorado, Dec. 28, 2018.
(Photo by Sgt. Asa Bingham)
Mendoza's parents, Flavio Sr. and Veronica Mendoza — both born in Jalisco, Mexico — always tried to give the best life possible for their family of five. They both worked during the day leaving Mendoza and his two sisters with their grandmother.
Twelve family members — both immediate and extended — packed into a two bedroom house made for claustrophobic conditions. To escape from the cramped living situation, Mendoza would play outside.
"I had a lot of friends around my age growing up," said Mendoza. "Even though the neighborhood wasn't one for us to be playing in, we still made the best of it."
Graffiti lined the walls of the street like uncontrollable ivy growing wild. The gunshots from rival gangs trying to kill each other, followed by the police sirens and helicopters circling with their bright lights all just became natural.
He didn't have to go far from his childhood home to find trouble, he said. Right next door was far enough.
"I remember cops always being at that house for something," Mendoza said. "It seems like everyone from the gang hung out there. There was always cars filled with nothing but bald heads, and gangsters with guns rolling up, asking where I was from or if I banged."
The gang life was calling for Mendoza, who was given many opportunities to join. He ignored the beckoning calls unlike some of his friends.
"A couple of kids I grew up playing with and thought were my homies broke into our house one day," he said. "They stole anything and everything."
Mendoza's parents saw what was happening to the neighborhood. They saw what path their kids could go down if they weren't careful. So in an effort to get away from the trouble they saved up their money and moved to Monterey Park, Los Angeles.
"I didn't hear any sirens anymore, no more gunshots, and no more constant fear from always having to turn around and watch my back at night," said Mendoza.
His upbringing gave him a burning desire to do more, to be better then what he saw around him. The noise. The chaos. The crime. It was all motivation to get away.
The great escape
"After graduating high school, I immediately wanted to join the Army," said then 18-year old Mendoza. "I walked into the recruiter one day and told them that I wanted to join and go fight."
Mendoza's parents and family were hesitant about the Army; they wanted him to go to college.
"I tried for a semester or two, but I realized school just wasn't for me," he said. His goal was to get away and to serve his country.
Knowing only what he saw from movies and TV shows, Mendoza said he had his heart set on joining up as an infantry soldier, but his recruiter, a combat engineer, persuaded him otherwise.
"He asked me if I wanted to blow things up," Mendoza said. "After showing me a couple of videos and stories of what a sapper was and did, I was hooked."
Next thing he knew, Mendoza was hauling his own weight in duffel bags with a drill sergeant in his face yelling at him to get off the bus at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
It was 2014, and his Army journey had just begun.
He spent days that felt like weeks pushing the earth away, counting "One, drill sergeant. Two, drill sergeant," the never-ending pushups followed by the sprints, road marches, early mornings, yelling and apprehension that any moment a drill sergeant could burst in and make him question his decision to join.
"I would do it all over again," said Mendoza. "It's not that (One-Station Unit Training) was tough; it was more mental, like can you deal with the day to day suck and not quit."
After completing OSUT, not knowing what to expect, Mendoza landed at his first duty station, Fort Lewis and was assigned to the 22nd Engineer Clearance Company, 864th Engineer Battalion, 555th Engineer Brigade.
"Life as an engineer had its ups and downs, but for the most part, it was fun," said Mendoza. When soldiers aren't training they're cleaning. From picking up cigarette butts to sweeping and mopping, this was not what Mendoza thought he would be doing. But when it came time to train and learn engineer tactics and skills, Mendoza thrived.
"I made the best of friends doing the coolest stuff," he said. From how to calculate demolition charges to identifying improvised explosive devices, Mendoza loved to learn the skills of an engineer.
Mendoza quickly gained the respect of his peers and leadership with his good attitude and even better work ethic.
"Working as an engineer is hard work, but being around good people makes it fun," said Travis Ramirez, a former engineer who worked with Mendoza. "I could always count on Mendoza to have a good attitude. He was always making everyone laugh, even when the work we were doing was tough."
His infectious personality brought many of his fellow engineers to his room after work and on weekends to just hang out and have fun. It was in these time that unbreakable bonds were formed and a lasting brotherhood was forged.
His work ethic and positive attitude were evident to his leaders, who gave him the responsibility of operating the Buffalo, a version of the mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle specifically used in route clearance operations as a mine interrogation asset.
Weighing in at more than 45,000 pounds and measuring a staggering 27 feet long, considerable skill and precision is required to maneuver the armored behemoth.
Mendoza was a perfect fit.
"I feel like I was given a higher level of responsibility driving the Buffalo," said Mendoza. "The Buff is huge and an essential part to the route clearance mission. I had the best times in Buff 1-1."
A US Army 759th Explosive Ordnance Disposal team Buffalo MRV.
(DoD photo by Ken Drylie)
On any given day, Mendoza could be found with his platoon conducting 12-mile road marches with upwards of 35-pounds on his back in full combat gear to repetitive field training exercises in the cold. The pace of training seemed endless, and within three years his body started feeling the effects.
"It was just chronic leg pain," said Mendoza. "I went to go get it checked out and was going through physical therapy, but nothing was working."
Mendoza was diagnosed with bone spurs in his shins.
He had gained so much from being an engineer — the memories of training exercises, the connections with fellow soldiers he now considers family. He never thought of himself doing anything else, no other job could match the bravado of being an engineer.
After going to physical therapy for close to a year, he received the news he had been dreading. His primary care provider permanently limited his physical abilities. He could no longer run. He couldn't foot march. He wasn't even supposed to jump anymore. He was forced to switch jobs and leave the engineer world.
"I felt like I was going to lose a part of me when I was told I had to switch," said Mendoza, now assigned to the 22nd Human Resources Company, 4th Special Troops Battalion, 4th Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.
The Army had served as his escape from a life he was sure would have landed him in jail or dead. He was not about to quit, he said.
Mendoza reclassified from combat engineer to human resources specialist.
A completely different world in his eyes
Instead of looking out the driver's window of a Buffalo, he now stared into a computer screen. He went from patrolling for improvised explosive devices to scanning personnel records. From hearing loud explosions to now hearing the quiet clicks of a computer mouse.
Mendoza didn't waver. He pushed forward, taking with him the same work ethic and positive attitude that drove him out of the streets of Los Angeles to become the soldier he is today.
"I still carry the engineer crest in my (patrol cap). It lets me know where I came from and that gives me pride," said Mendoza. "Even though I'm away and in a new career field, I will always be an engineer."
This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.