Story and photo by Cpl. Katherine Keleher
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Here in the desert of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Technical Sgt. Johnny Gomez is a long way from South America.
Gomez, who is currently deployed here as an aeromedical evacuation technician with the 651st Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Regional Command Southwest, enlisted in the Air Force before even earning his American citizenship, and has been honorably serving his new home, the United States, for over 20 years.
Gomez was born and raised in Medellin, Columbia, a city known as one of the most dangerous in the world, he said.
“I remember standing on the street at 3 a.m. for hours, waiting in line to get a jug of milk,” Gomez said. “I never thought anything of it. It’s just the way it was growing up.”
In 1982, when Gomez was 12, he and his family packed up and moved to Boca Raton, Fla.
“I remember when we moved, somebody asked me to go get milk,” Gomez explained. “I thought ‘oh okay, I have to get up at 3 a.m. to wait in a line on the street.’ I didn’t realize there were 7-11’s everywhere that I could just walk into and buy a gallon of milk from.”
Five years after moving to the states, Gomez graduated from Boca Raton High School.
“After I graduated high school I really wanted to travel and see the world,” Gomez said. “My old soccer coach talked to me about the Air Force, so I went and talked to a recruiter and ended up enlisting.”
Three years into his career, however, the only part of the world the Air Force had showed Gomez was Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
“I was up for re-enlistment and I told them I wanted to go overseas,” Gomez explained. “They said they couldn’t send me overseas because I didn’t have my citizenship.”
After realizing not being an American citizen was holding him back from traveling the world while he served the nation he called home, he finally started the citizenship process. Being in the military helped him get his citizenship in just a few months.
In 1992 Gomez decided it was time for a change and he got out of the Air Force – if only temporarily.
“I was back home in Florida and a friend of mine in Virginia called me about a reserve medical evacuation fly job,” Gomez said. “It seemed like something I’d like, so I moved to Virginia to join the unit.”
Gomez has been with the 459th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron out of Andrews Air Force Base, Md., since, although he is currently deployed with the 651st AES.
Gomez has enjoyed a diverse career, at different times working as a contractor, serving as the training noncommissioned officer for the American Embassy in Nicaragua, and training others as a medical technician instructor.
Even with all of Gomez’s accomplishments, at the end of the day, he still wanted to serve his country in Afghanistan and put his skills to use.
“For us in the reserve, deployments are basically voluntary. But my squadron was deploying in the winter, after [my wife] Heather has [our second child] and I didn’t want to leave her.”
Instead, with the support of his wife, Gomez got on a deployment with his current squadron during the spring and summer of 2011, during Heather’s pregnancy.
“This was important to Johnny and throughout our relationship, he has always wanted to put his training to use,” said Heather, through e-mail. “The troops need someone like him, someone who always seems to know what to do and when to do it. There was never a question of him not deploying.”
Whether it be luck or blessing, Gomez is due back to the states six days before Heather is scheduled to give birth.
Until then, Gomez continues to stay in the fight doing what he has been trained to do for nearly 20 years.
“When you’re evacuating a [wounded] U.S. serviceman or women and you see them lying on a cot, it’s hard,” he continued. “It’s a huge sense of accomplishment, though, when you get them where they need to be and you know they’re going to get to see their loved ones back home again.”
Gomez is nearing the end of his deployment and looks forward to returning to his growing family in Maryland in the coming months.
Additional photos can be viewed here.