2013 Toughest Military Mom: Maricela Gonzalez Martinez, 27 from Las Vegas 

Nominated by friend Andrea Bridges because "Maricela took me under her wing and showed me the ropes."

Maricela and I first met when I was fresh out of basic training and stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, near Wichita Falls. We are both computer technicians: Our job is to maintain the telecommunications systems, and it’s a big responsibility. I think you have to be pretty tough as a woman in the military—even working in IT, our troop is mostly men—but I was quickly in awe of how gracefully Maricela strikes that balance. She is a tough cookie, but she’s also the sweetest, most caring person in the world.

Maricela is a single mom, so she has to be everything to her 8-year-old daughter, Lupe. Maricela is in Afghanistan for six to eight months in any given year, with only a holiday or two back home, but she and her daughter still have an incredible bond. Maricela never misses a karate lesson or a school performance when she’s here. And when she’s deployed and Lupe goes to stay with her grandmother, Maricela stays in touch; she knows every homework assignment. It must break her heart to leave Lupe, but I’ve never heard her complain. She loves her daughter, but she also loves this country!

Now that I’m a supervisor in my department for the Air Force and a mom myself, I realize how much I learned from Maricela. I have two kids, and I’m gearing up for my first deployment soon. Maricela and Lupe have since been transferred to Las Vegas, but she’s still somehow always available to give me advice. My 3-year-old, in particular, doesn’t want Mama to go. So Maricela told me about books we can read to him, and how the base’s Airman and Family Readiness Center will put your photo on a pillow for a child to hug while you’re away—things not taught in basic training. Maricela took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. She has been my inspiration. I’d be lost without her.

In Her Words
Q What motivated you to enlist in the Air Force?

A Recruiters came

to my high school to give a presentation. I remember thinking, Oh my God, I want to do that. My family moved here from Mexico when I was 9. I thought, If a girl from the middle of Mexico can grow up to be in the Air Force, anything is possible here! This country has given me so much—I want to repay that.

Q What’s the biggest challenge for you as an Air Force mom?

A Being away from my daughter. I’ll be deployed again soon, and I know it’s my duty, but it breaks my heart every time. Lupe’s father and I separated seven months after I enlisted, when she was a baby, and he’s no longer involved in her day-to-day care. So for my entire military career, I’ve been doing this alone. I am lucky to have a wonderful family who takes care of

her when I’m gone, and it’s a comfort knowing she’s in good hands. But I still miss her like crazy. We write letters and cards and talk on Skype as much as we can. When I’m home, Lupe goes to school in Las Vegas, and when she’s in Texas with my mom she goes to the same school as my sister’s boys, who live down the block.

Q Who are your heroes?

A My parents. My dad [pictured below] sacrificed so much for us. He started coming to the United States to work when I was a year old, and he hated to leave us all the time, but it was all so he could give us a better future. And my mom—she’s always there for me. When I first got divorced, she would drive 2½ hours to drop off food and make sure we were OK. I’ve been so blessed with them.

Q Does being a mom make you a better Air Force leader?

A Absolutely. You want to watch out for your troops, help them prepare to do their jobs and make sure they’re OK with their families. Being in the military and a single parent has made me so much more responsible on a lot of levels.