“Headin’ down south to the land of the pines, I’m thumbin’ my way into North Caroline…” sang Sal Gonzalez, who began a presentation at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division (NUWC) Newport by reciting a few verses of country star Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel.”
Gonzalez, a spokesman for Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), shared his journey overcoming adversity, managing his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and finding peace through music, as part of Division Newport’s recognition of October’s National Disability Awareness Month on Oct. 24.
Born and raised in California, Gonzalez said he has always been musically talented — singing since the moment he could speak and playing the guitar since age 12. Now a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, he’s performed and opened up for artists like Taylor Swift, Lonestar and Charlie Daniels, and was even on season nine of “America’s Got Talent” in 2014.
Little did he know, Gonzalez said, that his love for music would help him persevere through some of his greatest hardships in life, most notable developing PTSD from his service in Iraq.
In 2003, Gonzalez joined the U.S. Marine Corps and a year later was deployed to Iraq, serving as a machine gunner with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. Within two months of deployment, Gonzalez and his troops were hit by improvised explosive devices seven times. The seventh time resulted in Gonzalez getting severely injured, resulting in the loss of his left leg from the knee down. His lieutenant, who had been sitting beside him during the attack, did not survive.
“I woke up in the hospital surrounded by my family,” Gonzalez said. “I had been in a coma for a week, both my lungs collapsed and I almost died a few times. My leg was in shambles — the doctors and I spent three months trying to save it but eventually we made the decision to amputate below the knee.”
While recovering in the hospital, Gonzalez was visited by someone from WWP and received a care package with fresh clothes. Though a small gesture, Gonzalez said it brought him a great deal of comfort.
WWP is an organization that began in 2003 when several veterans and friends, moved by stories of the first wounded service members returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq, started providing backpacks filled with comfort items to those who were wounded. Twenty years later, the organization’s direct programs and services in mental health, career counseling, long-term rehabilitative care, and policy advocacy have improved the lives of millions of warriors and their families.
At the time, WWP was just another reminder of his experiences in service, Gonzalez said, and once he was out of the hospital, and retired from the military, he did everything he could to forget about that part of his life. He decided to move out of California and head to Nashville, which is where music began his journey of healing.
“I didn’t realize how much music would help me in my transition,” he said. “Getting my feelings on paper is probably what saved my life.”
Despite his ability to express himself through music, Gonzalez still had a lot of trauma that he hadn’t faced, the biggest, being survivor’s guilt.
“I wasn’t prepared for survivor’s guilt,” he said. “My lieutenant, Matt, was just one of my 10 best friends who died in combat. For a long time, I felt guilty for breathing.
“So I drank, I drank a lot. I self-medicated with alcohol and let’s call them, ‘extra-curricular activities’.”
In 2009, WWP asked Gonzalez to participate in a bike ride. It was then that he connected with 40 other veterans and realized that they too were struggling in life.
“Slowly but surely, we kept in touch with each other, we’d call each other and keep each other accountable,” Gonzalez said. “I started getting better for them — I started curtailing my habits for them, and I am happy to say that I no longer self-medicate.”
In 2010, Gonzalez applied for a position with WWP and has been working with them ever since.
“I am so indebted to this organization. Not only did I benefit from a few of the programs, but there’s 15-plus programs that are all free of charge for veterans. None of that would be possible without folks like you, who care about us. So thank you, because I don’t think I’d be around today without this organization.”
Today, Gonzalez travels the country singing and sharing his story to raise awareness of PTSD and to offer his insights on coping and healing.
Gonzalez concluded his presentation with a performance of “Heroes,” a powerful song that he wrote in honor of those who lost their lives in military service.
The chorus is:
“‘Cause I don’t mean to not sound grateful
‘Cause the good Lord knows I am
For sparing me my life
On the day He took my friend.
But I still wish that I had gone with him
Or maybe even took his place
Oh, but destiny didn’t lead me that way
So I’m not tryin’ to say you’re wrong
But heroes ain’t the ones who make it home.”
“Life is full of adversity for everybody,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t have to go to war and lose a leg to go through a rough time. But if you take anything away from today, and my speech, just know that it doesn’t matter what you’re going through, you can overcome.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and National Disability Employment Awareness Month is observed from Oct. 1-31, per presidential proclamation and public law.
“This year’s theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month is ‘Advancing Access and Equity: Then, Now and Next’,” said Disability Program Manager Michelle Eddy before introducing Gonzalez. “The theme also commemorates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities, past present and showcases supportive and inclusive practices that benefit employees and employers alike.
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