A Continuing Mission

Anthem’s Darlene Gonzales left lasting impression on Afghan women

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

When Darlene Gonzales found out she was going to be deployed at age 52 to Afghanistan, she figured she could “do anything for a year.”

The 12 months turned out to be a career highlight for the Daisy Mountain Veterans web designer who will volunteer at this year’s Veterans Day Parade.

Gonzales, who splits her time between Colorado and Anthem, served active duty in the U.S. Navy for four years (1975-79) at Pearl Harbor. Her other tours included Colorado, England, Spain and Germany.

Twelve years later, she joined the reserves, and in 2007, she headed to Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom as the director of contracting performing humanitarian aid missions and promoting Afghanistan women’s issues.

“Because I was in federal contracts in my civilian world, I did contracting down-range at Herat. I went out on numerous missions throughout the year,” she says.

“We built up the Afghan infrastructure. I went out to see the women, the Afghan women. Sometimes they’d come to the base and tell us about their issues, and we’d try to help them as best we could as Americans.”

Help included everything from giving them rice and beans for meals or a tractor so they could be self-sufficient by growing crops. She and her fellow troops built a carpet factory. After the Taliban killed their husbands, the women were forced to survive on their own.

She admits she wasn’t wary about heading to Afghanistan.

“I went over there initially, and I did my duty,” Gonzales says.

“I was going to go over there for a year then, and it could be very stressful. But I didn’t think about that. I just made sure I was safe. I trained in Fort Riley, Kansas, for three months. I wanted to come back alive.”

Gonzales frequently paired with male medics, who weren’t allowed to touch the Afghan women. She examined the women and discussed their problems through a translator.

Raised in a small South Dakota town, Gonzales joined the military straight out of high school to see the world.

“I had never really gotten off the farm or seen the world,” she says. “I figured what a better way to see the world. I graduated from high school. I went out on my own and worked in Rapid City, South Dakota, and lived above a recruiting station.

“Every time I walked up the stairs, I saw the poster about joining the Navy and seeing the world. It was four years. I enlisted. I figured it’s a job and I could see the world, which is good for a small-town rural girl who’s lived on a farm her whole life. It was a good experience.”

She retired in 2010 from the U.S. Navy Reserves as a senior chief petty officer with over 21 years of military service. She continues her mission of promoting the military by serving as the secretary for a nonprofit women’s veterans organization in Denver, and she is vice president of Veterans First LTD here in Phoenix.

“I’m hoping I was making a difference,” says Gonzales, 62. “We tried to help them as best we could. We gave them material to sew. We did a lot of missions. I listened to them and tried to help them.

“It’s a different world being in the military. I’m glad I did it. I will support all of our young men and women out there. It’s important for our freedom. I hope people realize the sacrifice our men and women are making.” 

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