WASHINGTON – A 19-year-old Army private stands over a smoldering fire, cooking snake meat in the middle of a mango grove during a jungle survival training class in East Java, Indonesia.
In his short time in the Army, Pvt. Juan Gonzalez, a native of Chicago and an infantryman assigned to Blackwatch Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division from Joint Base Lewis-Mchord, Washington, has transformed from a high school athlete to a squad automatic weapon gunner.
The “Legion” battalion is participating in exercise Garuda Shield and is partnered with the 411th Raider Infantry Battalion from the Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the Indonesian armed forces.
Garuda Shield is also part of the training pathway for the 2nd Stryker Brigade, linking home station training to a series of military-to-military exercises in the Pacific region.
Major training exercises
As part of the Legion Battalion, Gonzalez has found himself in two major field exercises in the past year, -- a month spent at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, and now a month in East Java.
The training in California wasn’t easy, Gonzalez said, but he feels it has better prepared him for his time he is spending in Southeast Asia.
“NTC was pretty rough, especially the temperatures and the hours we spent out there,” he said. “Being mentally prepared when the going gets tough, I feel like it has been handy here.”
Killing, eating snakes
One thing that NTC didn’t prepare him for was what he encountered during the jungle survival class on how to properly kill and cook a venomous snake commonly found in the jungles of Indonesia.
“I have a big fear of snakes and never thought I would be eating one,” Gonzalez said. “It was an awesome experience but I will probably never do it again.”
Still in his first unit, Gonzalez has gone from being the new private in the squad to the dependable and reliable SAW gunner within his first year.
“As a SAW gunner you possess the biggest fire power in your squad. It is your responsibility to bring that gun to the fight,” Gonzalez said.
He added that holding such a position means the team leader has trust in him and he has to be a reliable part of the team and know everything about the weapon and how it operates in every type of environment.
“[Gonzalez] is everything a private should be, he is outstanding, that is the reason he is the SAW gunner,” said Sgt. Jeffrey Baldwin, a squad leader with 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry.
Pushing himself to excel
Gonzales says sometimes it gets tough carrying the weapon up hills, but he pushes himself knowing the other guys on the team are counting on him to get that weapon system there.
With his father’s motivation to participate in sports, he knows the importance of being a team player.
“My father always kept me and my younger brother involved in sports since we were old enough to play,” Gonzalez said. “I played football in the fall, and wrestling during the winter.”
“Working with the [Indonesian troops] has been awesome, I have learned a lot of tips from them,” Gonzalez said.
Building friendships with Indonesian troops
It was easy to bond to build friendships with the Indonesian soldiers, Gonzalez said, when you are placed in a harsh environment together, which was the case during their field training exercise portion of Garuda Shield.
The infantryman prides himself on his work ethic and drive.
“I always strive to shoulder my share of the task and then some,” Gonzalez said. “I always strive to be better than I was yesterday.”
Gonzalez says he constantly is setting both short- and long-term goals for himself.
“I want to go to Ranger School, I think it is a great leadership course,” he said. “I feel I could take a lot away from it.”
His squad leader believes he has what it takes to accomplish his goal.
“Gonzalez has the physical potential and the head for it, he has a great chance of passing,” Baldwin said.
On top of graduating Ranger School, Gonzalez wants to earn the Expert Infantry Badge.
Plans to re-enlist
The Chicago native plans on re-enlisting and staying in the Army.
“I feel that the Army is the place for me to be now,” Gonzalez said.
When the exercise in Indonesia ends, his unit will make the trip to Japan to take part in exercise Orient Shield, -- the final stop in the Pacific Pathway -- before making their way back to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“I really hope that I will be able to get to know and bond with them [Japanese soldiers] like we were able to do with the [Indonesian troops],” Gonzalez said.