FORT MEADE, Md. -- Each night Perla Gonzalez lay in hushed silence as she slept on a public restroom floor. She huddled against her backpack that contained only a single change of clothes and her textbooks.
Then a senior studying law and society at the University of California-Santa Barbara, she no longer had her close-knit family nearby, who had to suddenly move an hour away to Santa Maria, California, following a domestic dispute. Gonzalez had lived with her parents while attending classes and had to choose between moving or finishing her degree at the same institution.
Tired and hungry, she often hid in fear, worried that a janitor or another student might discover her.
She spent her senior year homeless as she struggled to finish her degree. Gonzalez had earned academic scholarships, but her part-time job didn’t provide enough income to pay for a place to stay. Admittedly, she had too much pride to ask friends for help.
So Gonzalez slept in bathrooms, on benches, or whatever shelter she could find at night. She stayed at the university’s library until it closed at midnight. When it became unbearable, she thought of her mother, Elena, who had worked long hours as a custodian while enduring beatings at home.
“My mom had put in so much effort into helping me get through school,” she said. “I just couldn't let her down.”
Elena Gonzalez had left Santa Barbara in a rush, with only a few days to spend with her daughter.
Gonzalez, who emigrated from a small village in the central Mexico state of Zacatecas at 14-years-old, had seen injustice in her life and how the law did not always provide equal justice for everyone. So she decided to become a lawyer after witnessing her mother endure domestic violence and to prevent others from falling victim to injustice.
In December, Gonzalez took one step closer to achieving that goal when she became one of the first three enlisted Soldiers to be accepted into the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps’ Funded Legal Education Program, or FLEP. Last year, the Army opened the program to enlisted candidates for the first time since Congress authorized the program in 1973.
Under the FLEP, up to 25 active-duty officers and NCOs are selected each year to attend law school fulltime and tuition-free while retaining their rank, base pay, and allowances. In return, participants in the program -- known as “FLEPs” -- must fulfill a six-year commitment to serve as an Army lawyer.
A long way back
Gonzalez, now a staff sergeant stationed at the U.S. Army Medical Department Activity-Bavaria in Vilseck, Germany, recalled one night in 2001, when her mother finally found the courage to call the police for help after years of abuse. The department told her family that they did not have an interpreter on staff and to come back another time, devastating her mother.
“Because we didn’t know the language, they turned us away,” Gonzalez said in an interview on Wednesday.
She had watched her mother endure domestic abuse as a child until her college years. Finally, in the fall of 2005, her mother could take no more and left to live an hour north of Santa Barbara.
So she pushed herself to study even as she battled hunger and when she didn’t know where she would be sleeping at night. She had wanted to become a lawyer after her family’s experiences with the law, and the lack of diversity she saw.
“I've had some interactions with the law that made me realize that there is a lot of under representation when it comes to women, immigrants and minorities,” Gonzalez said.
Still Gonzalez managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in law and society in 2006, becoming the first in her family to finish college. She dedicated the achievement to her mother, who never finished grade school and worked long hours to raise Gonzalez and her four siblings.
However, Gonzalez, who was still undocumented, could not use her degree to find employment due to the absence of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and found herself once again relegated to blue collar work, waitressing and custodial jobs.
In 2013, after receiving her green card, Gonzalez joined her husband, now Sgt. Jose Pantoja, in the Army. The couple met while attending Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California, and attended junior ROTC together.
After seven years as a biomedical equipment specialist Gonzalez said she reached a crossroads in her military career. She wanted to once again pursue her dream of becoming an attorney and attend law school using the G.I. Bill.
Last spring, her battalion commander forwarded her an email announcing that enlisted service members could apply for the FLEP.
Gonzalez hesitated to apply because she didn’t think she had much of a chance. But she eventually submitted her application on Nov. 1 without expectations and continued to prepare for life outside the military. She focused on completing her master’s from California State University-Northridge and graduated in December with a 3.9 GPA.
“I didn't know how I was going to measure up to the officers or how I would compare,” said Gonzalez, who earned her U.S. citizenship in 2014. “I didn't know that I had a chance.”
Then two days before Christmas, she received a message that she had become one of the first three NCOs to be accepted into the program. After students earn their law degree, they must complete the six-week Direct Commission Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, which teaches basic Soldier skills and leadership. Even though FLEPs have already completed initial entry training in their former branch, DCC provides refresher training and an opportunity to assist new judge advocates with no military experience.
Afterward, students attend the 10 1/2-week Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they study military law and learn about the JAG Corps’ organization and mission.
Gonzalez is the only non-paralegal among the three NCOs selected for the FLEP. Lt. Col. Aaron Lykling, chief of the Judge Advocate Recruiting Office, said Gonzalez stood out among the 151 officers and NCOs who applied.
“Staff Sgt. Gonzalez’s incredible life story, leadership ability, and legal potential just jumped off the page,” Lykling said. “She really showcases the best our Army has to offer.”
The FLEP was originally conceived as a retention tool, as the JAG Corps struggled to retain talented officers amid and after the Vietnam War. Since then, the program has flourished, producing officers with leadership skills and operational experience that strengthens the JAG Corps’ legal practice.
Initially, the program was limited to lieutenants and captains who had at least two and no more than six years of service at the start of law school. Now NCOs in the ranks of sergeant through sergeant first class, who have between four to eight years in service and a bachelor’s degree, may apply for one of the 25 selections.
In the current class, the JAG Corps selected 22 officers and three enlisted Soldiers. The other NCOs are Sgt. Kathryn Matthews, a four-year paralegal assigned to the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, U.S. Army Central at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina; and Staff Sgt. Matthew Smith, who originally enlisted as a paralegal specialist in 2013 and is currently acting as court reporter and court clerk for the 3rd Judicial Circuit, Fort Hood Texas.
Matthews has a dual degree in political science and anthropology from Arizona State University, while Smith earned a bachelor’s in legal studies at the University of Central Florida.
“Opening the FLEP to mid-grade NCOs will enrich our Corps and make us more effective at advising our clients,” Lykling said. “Because we will have people in our ranks that have been in their shoes and understand how the Army works at the unit level.”
Shortly after learning she would have the opportunity to achieve a lifelong dream, Gonzalez called her mother in California.
The news took a few moments to sink in. “She was so happy,” Gonzalez said. “Because she knows this is what I've always wanted to do.”
For the first time in her life, Gonzalez will take classes without the worry of working other jobs and the difficult obstacles she endured as an undergraduate. During her graduate studies, she had to homeschool her daughter while also performing her duties as a Soldier during the pandemic stay-at-home orders.
And she has the opportunity to inspire other migrants who followed paths similar to her own.
“I want to dedicate my life to serving those in need,” Gonzalez wrote in her FLEP application. “Immigration is my passion, the vast majority of people who immigrate to this country have no intention of breaking the law. On the contrary, they have a hunger, determination and desire to improve their lives.
“Through the completion of my law degree, I will empower others to understand that their lives matter,” she added. “Their worth is not determined by their income or legal status … their worth is determined by their humanity, dedication and determination.”