This is a special post written by Tom Gonzalez, Special Agent in the CSX Police Department and full-time Air Force Reservist.
From an early age, service was central to my family. My father was a railroader, and I began my career in service more than 30 years ago when I joined the Air Force. Today, I balance two complementary, but distinct service roles – one in the Air Force Reserves and the other as a full-time Special Agent in the CSX Police Department.
As a Special Agent, I serve in CSX’s Midwest Region, protecting our company’s operations and communities from Detroit to Cleveland. As a reservist, I often deploy overseas. My most recent tour of duty was in Afghanistan at the end of 2020. While I am beyond proud to serve my country, each deployment takes a tremendous amount of coordination, dedication, and sacrifice. It also takes teamwork! While my unit and I may be central to our mission, I can’t even begin to think about the task at hand without the support of my employer, my coworkers, my community, my wife, and, importantly, my four kids. That’s why I wanted to take the time to recognize, celebrate, and raise awareness for the Month of the Military Child and the unseen sacrifices at home that surround many of our soldiers overseas.
Like other military families, my kids have hit milestones, had birthdays, and celebrated holidays without me. While my older kids are grown now, my youngest son, Apollo, is still in elementary school. My last deployment took place over the holidays. It was hard being away for Christmas and Apollo’s 10th birthday, which falls on New Years’ Eve. Thanks to the magic of technology, we were able to connect and celebrate virtually. But of course, it wasn’t the same as giving my son a big bear hug for hitting “double digits.”
Being in the Reserves poses a unique challenge for my family because we are integrated into the civilian community. We’re not on a base, next door to other families whose parents may be deployed or facing similar circumstances. Apollo attends the local public school. The lack of other military families in our area can feel isolating and confusing at times. We are lucky that my son was able to lean on his best friend and his dad – a wounded veteran and a great guy – while I was away. It was a comfort to know that Apollo had them to guide him through the difficult days since not all reservist families can say the same.
The support for my family while I’m deployed starts with my employer and coworkers. They become the network that my wife and kids can call on when I’m away. First and foremost, it is critical that our finances are not disrupted, as we switch back and forth from civilian to military pay so that my wife doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills back home. Beyond that, my colleagues take on additional routes at work, covering my territory so I can slot right back in when I return. At home, a few of the officers at CSX immediately answered calls to shovel my driveway in a massive snowstorm or fix the circuit breaker on a busy morning before school. I think others in my shoes would agree that when we’re deployed, the mission is the easy part. Ensuring my family is taken care of is the biggest concern.
One of the things I am most proud of is that CSX not only supports me and my family, it also delivers tools and resources for thousands of military families like mine through Pride in Service, a national community investment initiative that works with nonprofit partners like Operation Gratitude. That support helps my family and I continue the cycle of service and give back to other families in similar situations. With Operation Gratitude, CSX will help deliver 5,000 “Battalion Buddies,” hand-stuffed teddy bears dressed in military uniform, to children of deployed or soon-to-deploy military parents. These bears aim to offer comfort to military kids while their parents are stationed away from home.
In fact, just this week, Apollo and I joined my fellow CSXers in filling out letters and cards with words of support for kids of deployed troops to be delivered along with these teddy bears. It means so much for my son to be able to help others like him who may be facing similar feelings of isolation and confusion that he experienced on his 10th birthday.
I can also say first-hand that these Battalion Buddies are a great idea to offer some comfort to military kids. Upon returning from Afghanistan, my unit and I rescued Dino, our German shepherd, who was deployed in the Afghan army for seven years as a bomb-sniffing dog. For all the terrible things this dog must have seen over the years, he has been a gentle blessing and a new best friend for Apollo. It gives me great comfort to know that next time I am away, Apollo will have his own real-life battalion buddy in Dino.
Paying forward service to others is part of what makes me and my family who we are. Growing up, that was a value instilled in me. I am proud to see it passed down across my family. My oldest son served in the Navy; my oldest daughter is in the Air Force, and my younger daughter is heading to boot camp in June. Apollo has a long time to decide what he wants to do. In the meantime, I am proud to see him volunteer with Operation Gratitude!
The Month of the Military Child aims to shine a light on the true sacrifice that millions of Americans, especially our children, are making in the name of service. I encourage everyone to reach out to the military families in your community not only during Month of the Military Child but year-round and make sure they feel supported. There are amazing organizations like Operation Gratitude doing important work to ensure families on and off a base are treated with empathy and understanding. I know firsthand that doing small things right makes big things fall into place.