By Master Sgt. Kap Kim, 10th Mountain Division PAO NCOICJuly 2, 2015
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (July 2, 2015) -- Master Sgt. George Isla spent his entire military career working on the mission, and he reaped all the benefits he could earn as a Soldier. Last month, he finished his time as the deactivated 10th Mountain Division's Signal Company's first sergeant.
By all accounts he was a success, but tragedies, regrets and the lessons he has learned from them going into his retirement have haunted him. Yet, Isla said that rather than harp on the past, he has decided to use the time he has left at Fort Drum to move forward, and he's rebuilding his relationship with his Family.
Isla grew up in baseball country where Atlanta Braves ball players would spend every spring. Against his father's wishes, his mother signed him up for T-ball at age 5, and years later, he became a baseball standout at Palm Beach Lakes High School at West Palm Beach, Fla. The utility ball player would eventually showcase his talents to an adult league and a semiprofessional league in Florida, but when his dreams met reality, Isla settled into becoming an electrician's apprentice.
"I knew I had to move on," he said. "I knew I wouldn't be a professional ball player."
The drive from his home to a construction site took him past an Army recruiting station. As a newlywed with a child on the way, Isla spoke to his wife Diane about enlistment. He had to grow up fast and take responsibility for his new Family.
"I had talked to my wife and kept telling her that I was thinking about it, and we both agreed that it would be in the best interests, since we had a newborn, to go ahead and join," he recalled. "I initially joined for four years, but four became eight and 12 years, and low and behold, I'm going into my 20th."
For the new Family, the career would entail several moves, but the first became the most challenging, as it was overseas. Basic training and advanced individual training were the first of many separations. While stationed in Germany, Isla had to leave his wife with their 3-year-old daughter, Saige, and one on the way when he was deployed to Bosnia.
"It was all new to us," he said. "My son was born without me; I could only come back to see him once he was in the doctor's arms."
From there, the Islas chose to go to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., to be closer to his Family, but that move proved to be tough, as the new job's responsibilities consumed him. That assignment started a downward spiral for the Family. A hardship tour to Korea and the strains of a follow-on assignment to Fort Gordon, Ga., as a drill sergeant finally took their toll on the marriage.
"That was one of the roughest times (for us) when I was on the trail," Isla said. "The reason it was tough was because I would bring my work home with me … if I was ever at home."
Although it had been his professional goal to be a drill sergeant and train Soldiers, the duty had crumbled his marriage with his high school sweetheart and driven him farther away from his children.
"It came to a point where we were so close to a divorce," he recalled. "All we had to do was sign the papers."
He and his wife decided, for the first time, to take the advice he had been giving to his Soldiers and their Families for years when they started seeking help to save their relationship. They both sought help through an Army chaplain. It was then that things started to turn around for the Islas. He finished three years of being a drill sergeant, and the Family moved to Okinawa.
"The day they took the (drill sergeant) hat off of me, I almost hit the ground because it felt like all the weight had been pulled off of me," he said.
The Islas used the assignment to Okinawa to catch up on the time they needed to make up. Isla took a detachment first sergeant job, and his wife became heavily involved with the family readiness group and the unit. They made time to do things together through unit events, and Diane Isla started tinkering with a camera.
His happiness was short-lived as he and his Family went back to Germany after Okinawa. While visiting home during Christmas 2009, Isla's mother was tragically killed. The event changed his outlook forever. Without the time to grieve, he never gained the closure he desperately needed.
The next year, all of the feelings Isla had held in finally imploded, and he found himself in a place where he never had been. He had an alcohol-related incident and was arrested by the military police. It resulted in nonjudicial punishment and a stern wake-up call for the model Soldier.
Through counseling and help from Family Members, he got back to the place where he was before, and he noticed that through the tragedy of his loss came the unexpected closeness of distant Family Members. He got closer to his younger brother, Alex, who had joined the Air Force and started his own Family.
George Isla went back to his childhood love of baseball to volunteer coach for his daughter's high school softball team. The following year, the Kaiserslautern community selected him as their volunteer of the year for his more than 4,000 hours of service.
Their arrival at Fort Drum in 2013 would be their seventh base, and for the Islas, it would come with another separation from their patriarch. This time, however, Isla would capitalize on modern technology.
He still holds onto the memory of having left his daughter, Saige, now 20, during his basic training, but he used the images of her rejection to his embrace when going into his deployment last year as the Division Signal Company's first sergeant.
What Isla said he learned through his last separation from his Family was, ironically, communication.
"Being able to communicate with my wife daily was the biggest factor in having a smooth deployment," he said. "Constant communication helps … tremendously."
Diane Isla said their marriage has not always been "sunshine," but today it's stronger than it has ever been.
"I made it a point when we were hit with deployment that I would take the opportunity to show my husband how much I loved, missed and cared for him," she said. "It takes effort to make any marriage work. … Add a long separation, and it's effort times 10."
Throughout the deployment, the two would exchange care packages with random love notes, and Diane Isla would start their video chats with lots of smiles to let her husband know she was happy to see him.
During their video chat sessions, she would place their tablet next to their youngest son, Teage, 9, and Isla would read passages from a children's Bible.
"It's just the little things like that that will help," he said.
In his last year in the Army, working on his retirement, Isla has come to learn several things about his career and himself. He said he was selfish for so long and that his decision to retire is one of the first he has made since his enlistment that is unselfish.
"I had to learn and realize that it's not about me; it's about the people I touch -- those who are around me, especially for my Family," he said. "This retirement is something that is going to be beneficial for not only me but my entire Family."
One thing Isla wants to do is reclaim the time he has lost. He wants to be able to concentrate on helping his wife with her career goals. Diane Isla, who is still very active as an Army spouse, continues to help other spouses in the place she has come to embrace as the "Army's best-kept secret." She uses her passion for photography and captures every moment of her Family's travels around northern New York to show other spouses through her blog site how much there is to experience, and she offers her firsthand experiences to new Army spouses.
As he prepares for his transition out of the Army, the lesson Isla wants all Soldiers to learn stems from the mistakes he has made through the years.
"I tell them to have a strong Family life," he said. "I tell them, 'look, you need to stop what you're doing and you need to go home and take care of your wife and your kids. Get them taken care of, because if your home life is set up for success, your career will be set up for success.'"
Since his redeployment last fall, Isla has done exactly that. His daughter recently graduated from Air Force basic and technical training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and the Family made the trek there to congratulate her. He went to every single one of Teage's baseball games and watched his team finish in first place.
He continues to support his son Jorge's love for theater. They enjoyed the 2015 U.S. Army Soldier Show at Fort Drum. Best of all, he and his Family finally got to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in May during its legends game at Doubleday Field.
"In the Army, they don't teach you Family first; they teach you mission first, but part of your mission is to make sure your Family is taken care of and that's your implied task," he said. "They are going to be there forever; your job will not. So, you have to be able to have that communication with the Family. That's what kept us going."