Army Saved This Soldier’s Life

Army Saved This Soldier’s Life

Sunday, October 1, 2023

On Jan. 1, after 32 years of service, I officially left the active-duty ranks of the U.S. Army. Like most others who serve for an extended period, I dove into deep reflection on my time spent in the military and the “so what” of it all. Was it worth it? Did I make an impact? Was I a good leader? And did I make a difference?

I would like to think the answer to these questions is a resounding yes. I asked myself two last questions: Would I do it again, and would I change anything? No matter how much time I spent reflecting and how many scenarios I played out in my mind, the conclusions were always the same: I would change nothing, and I would do it all over again.

Now, as I watch the news about the Army, I am disappointed by the negativity and focus on soldier misconduct, corrosives, low recruiting numbers and the narrative that all soldiers who deployed to combat suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My story is different. The Army transformed a kid from Portugal into an American citizen dedicated to the defense of the U.S. and its Constitution.

I moved from Portugal to Austin, Texas, when I was 16 to live with my American mother. Three months later, I was alone, homeless and struggling to find a meal. I managed to survive and stay out of trouble because of the goodness of both friends and strangers. I even earned my GED diploma. At the age of 21, I found myself living in Florida and working three jobs. I had no goals and was just surviving.

Why I Enlisted

I always had a calling to become a soldier and seek adventure. I was enamored with stories of courage, gallantry and service to a higher cause. In late fall of 1990, after working the night shift at 7-Eleven, I was watching the news coverage of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent buildup of coalition forces to deter further aggression. I distinctly remember seeing an Army recruiting commercial after the news. A Ranger rappelled out of a helicopter, touched the ground, looked at the camera and said, “United States Army Ranger—Be All You Can Be!” That was it for me. By Dec. 27, 1990, I was at Fort Benning, Georgia, now known as Fort Moore, ready to begin infantry basic training.

I enlisted for adventure, to be a hero, to win a medal and to earn recognition. I joined the Army for what I thought it could do for me. I did not enlist for patriotic reasons or to be part of a team.

My attitude changed rapidly after I graduated from infantry basic training in early 1991. Operation Desert Storm ended with a decisive victory over Iraqi forces and the liberation of Kuwait. My first duty station was in South Korea guarding what we called “Freedom’s Frontier.” I found myself part of a team of soldiers dedicated to safeguarding the freedom of others and the protection of the U.S., so I quickly transitioned from a “me” and “I” mentality to a focus on “we” and “the team.” I began to understand that the Army’s mission and my mission were about selfless service and preserving freedom for those who could not protect themselves. I realized that there was a much higher purpose to serving than my wants and needs.

This inflection point in South Korea began a 32-year journey of reflection and continuous learning. I wanted to become a leader of character and a role model for other soldiers.

The news cycle during the global war on terrorism—and even today—misrepresents the American soldier. The viewer or reader is likely to conclude that all soldiers returning from combat suffer from the debilitating effects of PTSD. This depiction goes beyond the media to include television shows and movies. The message is almost always the same: I was in the service, deployed to combat and now suffer from PTSD.

I know that many of my friends and soldiers do carry the moral injuries of war with them; however, I do not subscribe to the notion that most of us return as “damaged goods.”

I deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq during the initial invasions and subsequent surges in both theaters. All my deployments occurred during periods of intense combat and significant American casualties. I suffered residual effects from my time in combat, especially after the loss of one of my soldiers or friends.

Despite these difficult experiences, combat gave me a deep appreciation for the value of life and increased gratitude for my family. Combat made me a better husband and father. I was laser-focused on successfully completing my mission, then redeploying home with my soldiers to rejoin our families.

During combat operations, I witnessed extraordinary acts of courage, selflessness and the ever-present spirit of American compassion. I was astonished by the incredible love and infinite friendships soldiers developed for each other. It was in the heat of combat that I understood who we are as American soldiers.

Our mission was to help vulnerable people, not subjugate them. I was part of a cohesive team focused on protecting the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Our focus was to bring freedom and liberty to the oppressed. This was the effect war had on me. It made me a better person.

Many Opportunities

I entered the Army in 1990 with little to nothing besides the clothes on my back and a GED for my education. I had no possessions. I retired from the service with everything a person can want, partly because the Army made it all possible for me. On Jan. 1, I departed the service with a college diploma, a strong marriage and two daughters, a good retirement, leadership qualities and marketable skills, and all the earthly possessions a reasonable person could want. My eldest daughter also fell in love with the Army. She graduated this year from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and is beginning her own Army journey.

The Army provided me with deep, enduring relationships with an extended “family” of leaders, peers and subordinates. The Army provided me with multiple opportunities to grow into a leader of character. The Army gave me purpose and a legacy of service.

Above all, the Army changed me from a scared kid into a strong, confident leader. In words from the 1997 movie Starship Troopers, the Army “made me the man I am today,” and gave me all the tools to “Be All I Can Be.”

In these turbulent times of division and declining confidence and trust in our armed forces, it is imperative that Army leaders tell our story. We must convey to the American people that the profession of arms and the choice to serve is the most honorable and rewarding profession an individual can embark upon.

I made that choice, and it did not disappoint. I believed that when I enlisted, I would have to give my life to the Army. As it turns out, the Army saved my life and gave me a future I could never have imagined.

After 32 years of service, only one thing saddens me: I am too old to do it all over again.

Command Sgt. Maj. Mario Terenas, U.S. Army retired, is deputy director of the Association of the U.S. Army Center for Leadership. He retired from the Army in September 2022 following a 32-year career in the infantry, with his final assignment as command sergeant major of the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum, New York.