At 31 years old, Vielka Schulz took on one of the biggest physical challenges of her life by joining the U.S. Army to provide for her Family.
Now, after 21 years of service in the Army, Sgt. 1st Class Vielka Schulz said her decision, made out of necessity, has turned into a lifetime of service to the nation.
Schulz, a culinary specialist assigned to 626th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), is one of thousands of Hispanic service members who are recognized during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed Sept. 15-Oct. 15. Hispanic service members make up 17.6% of the active duty force, numbering 235,972 as of July 2021, according to the Defense manpower Data Center.
National Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to reflect on the contributions and sacrifices Hispanics have made to the United States.
Schulz grew up in Guabito, a small town in Panama that sits on the border with Costa Rica. What she remembers most about her hometown is the flavor and community.
“Everything that is important in my country is food,” she said. “The tamales, the Panamanian rice and chicken.”
She also fondly remembers the music and live performances.
“There were folk festivals where people would dress up and do special dances,” she said.
While working for a banana company, Schulz met her ex-husband who was an American Soldier. The two quickly married and began their lives together in the United States.
Soon after, the Family grew to include two children, Christa and Nicholas. When Schulz’s ex-husband was medically discharged from the military, the Family was left without health insurance. Schulz took action, enlisting in the Army. She spent months training for the physical fitness test.
Once she was set to leave for training, however, Schulz found herself in a different predicament – child care while she was gone.
Her ex-husband could not stay home with the children and after a few negative babysitting experiences the couple decided the best solution was to send the children – a 3 year-old toddler and a 15-month-old infant – to Panama with Schulz’s father. Her children returned to her after she completed basic combat training, but the separation was difficult, Schulz said.
“It was heartbreaking because they were so young,” she said. “I was able to speak to them once in a while when we were able to. I thought about them every day. I dreamed about them. I thought about what they were doing. I wondered if they had other kids to play with.”
Once her children were settled Schulz set out to complete the first phase of her military service.
While Schulz had spent months preparing for the physical aspect of basic combat training, she had not prepared for the psychological aspect.
“I was very naive going in because the only thing I knew that I had to prepare for was that you have to run so many miles in this number of minutes, and you have to do pushups and sit-ups, so I prepared for that,” Schulz said.
However, she wasn’t prepared for how having her freedoms stripped away would affect her mental health.
“Suddenly I had people screaming in my face and telling me ‘you can’t have juice for breakfast, dump it out and get water’ and things like that,” she said. “I was like ‘oh my God, I never expected it to be like this.’”
Schulz struggled at first with skills and concepts that she hadn’t known she needed prior to enlisting, such as learning how to read a map.
“It was a big eye-opener because I did not know that I needed to know how to read a map, that was a fundamental for me. It was challenging to me,” Schulz said.
Despite the challenges however, Schulz decided that lack of knowledge or experience would not keep her from succeeding, because she wasn’t there for herself, but for her children, and failing wasn’t an option.
“I still went ahead because I decided I wasn’t going to do this again, it was a one-time go,” Schulz said. “So, I would exercise even when I was injured.”
Her hard work didn’t go unnoticed and to her relief she completed basic combat training the first time through.
Throughout her military career, Schulz has learned a lot about herself and has picked up a few valuable life lessons.
“I’m not a quitter,” Schulz said. “I’m a hard worker. I always try to do things the way they’re supposed to be done. If I’m directed that something is supposed to be done a certain way, then that’s what I do. I try to do things the right way even if it means going the harder road to get things done than to choose the easy way out.”
Schulz said her culture is a major influence on how she approached her life in the Army.
“My strict upbringing kept me focused and directed me in everything I did and said, the same as the Army Values we follow,” she said.
Schulz has enjoyed her time in Army and is thankful for the opportunities she has been afforded as a Soldier.
“I am grateful for the Army and everyone I have met at any point in my career, no matter the location or situation,” Schulz said.