Staff Sergeant Michael Mendoza, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), was not born into a military Family but said his mother was the toughest drill sergeant he could have ever had.
Mendoza, 25, his brother and sister grew up in South Florida, children of a Puerto Rican mother and Nicaraguan father. It was his mother, Sue Guarnizo, who held the Family together after his father left and was later deported to Nicaragua.
“My mother is my foundation,” Mendoza said. “She was very independent and very strict. It was almost like she was a drill sergeant. Every Saturday morning at 0730 or 0800, she was coming into our room, she would open the blinds and had a list of chores. It was just crazy how strict my mom was. I was like 8 years old, scrubbing the tiles in the bathroom. My mom did not play.”
Perhaps that is because her Family struggled when she grew up, Mendoza said, and she wanted her children to know the value of discipline, hard work and money. That continued, even after she married his stepfather when he was in middle school and the Family became financially stable.
“My mother taught me the value of a dollar and I think that is the biggest thing and most important thing she could have done in my life,” Mendoza said.
The man his mother married when Mendoza was in the sixth grade taught him as well. Through his stepfather he learned about the Army – the discipline and the opportunities it held for anyone willing to work hard and prove their grit.
Andres Guarnizo was in the U.S. Army when he met Mendoza’s mother at a party in South Florida while visiting Family. He was born in Colombia, South America, moved to Chicago and was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
“My stepfather actually deployed to Iraq three times and he was in the Army for 10 years,” Mendoza said. “They met before his last deployment to Iraq.”
His stepfather was a staff sergeant before he got out of the Army and moved to Florida to marry Mendoza’s mother.
“He was a big impact on me joining the Army,” Mendoza said. “Since the day he came into my life, joining the Army was one of his things. Especially when I got to high school, that’s when he started to drill it, all the way until senior year. He always said keep the Army in consideration, saying ‘it will make you a man’.”
Halfway through his first semester of college, Mendoza felt the tug to do something more and called his stepfather to tell him he wanted to enlist.
“He said, ‘Mike, call me when you’re serious,’ and hung up the phone,” Mendoza said. “I called him back and said I was dead serious. I was sick of school and wanted something different.”
That day, they visited an Army recruiter and within three months, Mendoza found himself at basic.
“I already knew I wanted to be infantry,” Mendoza said. “I knew I wanted to be one of the Soldiers where if we did have to go to war, I’d be one of the Soldiers that put his life on the line and do something honorable for the Army.”
He got his wish.
Fort Campbell was his first duty station and he arrived as 3rd Brigade Combat Team was in a training cycle to prepare for a 2015 deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Mendoza said that was mostly a force protection deployment and “there wasn’t much going on.” It would be a different story when he deployed with the 1st Battalion, 187h Infantry Regiment, 3rd BCT, a second time in November 2016.
There were many missions that took him many places on that deployment, Mendoza said. One of them was near the Pakistani border.
“That’s probably one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan because all the ISIS fighters and Taliban fighters cross the Pakistani border because they know that Americans can’t go into Pakistan,” he said. “My first day, we got shot at, so that was honestly a wakeup call.”
They arrived at midnight and the shooting began before 8 a.m.
“That was a short fire fight, probably about an hour,” Mendoza said. “My scariest experience was in Kunduz when we were getting mortared by the Taliban. That lasted probably 30 minutes, but we got hit with eight 82-millimeter mortar rounds. Experiencing mortar rounds hit so close to your body and feeling like your spine is shaking, actually having direct fire, is rare because most of them would just lob bombs and miss badly. But the dudes that were shooting at us with these rounds were very accurate. One of the rounds hit one of our vehicles and destroyed it and we were in an abandoned hotel, so we had to hunker down. Some of the Afghan National Army soldiers we were with took shrapnel to the arms and face.”
Mendoza also learned much from the Soldiers around him, although it might seem they had little in common. Mendoza had a mentor who was like a father figure to him while serving on that deployment.
Staff Sergeant Ryan Deming, a squad leader, took the young corporal under his wing.
“He molded me to be a leader,” Mendoza said. “All the Soldiers loved him, he was personable, knew everybody’s name and backgrounds and joked a lot. He was from Kansas City, Missouri, and listened to all kinds of music. I saw how versatile he was. He accepted everyone’s culture and connected with Soldiers of all backgrounds.”
As a minority Soldier that meant a lot to Mendoza. Hispanic Soldiers are rare in the infantry, he said, but Mendoza learned to appreciate differences among the Soldiers he knew and found a brotherhood that led him to want to be a mentor too.
Now a staff sergeant and a squad leader, Mendoza makes it a point to get to know his Soldiers.
“I like to inspire the young, minority Soldiers in the infantry or the Army in general, because I’m a mentor to a lot of Soldiers,” he said. “If you come to my battalion, you’ll see that every Soldier in every company knows me because I go to every single company and I talk to every Soldier, or at least I try. And I try to set an example and I try to show the military bearing and professionalism because I know how difficult it is to feel out of place.”
Mendoza also can teach them about failing and the importance of not giving up.
“Before I went to Ranger School, I failed pre-Ranger school at Fort Campbell three times,” he said. “When I finally got to the Ranger School, I graduated as the enlisted honor grad. At that moment, it just showed me that all the hard work, all the failing that I did, it showed me that if I stayed consistent with my goals and my plans to achieve those goals then I would overcome any obstacle, which I did.”
Mendoza is an Airborne Ranger, who hopes to go through the Ranger Assessment and Selection Process to be assigned to a Ranger battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia.
When he was asked to share his story for National Heritage Month, Mendoza agreed because he wants to see more minorities, including Hispanics, in the infantry. He said he has already noticed a shift since joining the Army, but although the military is a big melting pot, he said that isn’t as true in the infantry.
“As a leader I make sure if I get new Soldiers, I don’t care what your race is, I don’t care about your background,” Mendoza said. “At the end of the day, if you have on a uniform, we’re all brothers in arms. Because when I was in Afghanistan and almost lost my life, it put me in a spot where I love my brothers in arms. Some of them come from an all-white Family and never had (minority) friends and we’re like best friends, because we’ve been through some things.”