FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Sitting inside one of the many buildings around Fort Leavenworth that belong to the Mission Command Training Program, is Sgt. Maj. Antonio Gonzalez. He an ardent believer in the Army values and by all definition, a war hero. His actions in Afghanistan in 2007 would result in the Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor in the U.S. Army.
Gonzalez grew up in Boyel Heights in East Los Angeles, an area known for drug and gang wars and also high unemployment.
“Despite what was happening where I grew up, I met some outstanding friends at Bishop Mora Salesian High School,” said Gonzalez. “I graduated in 1987 and to this day, I still keep in touch with them. That’s the loyalty we have within that bond.”
Sports were also an escape for him.
“I grew up loving the Raiders, Dodgers, Magic Johnson and the [Showtime-era] Lakers, Kirk Gibson hitting that home run in the World Series, all of that,” he said.
His passion and skill in sports eventually led him to a football scholarship at Kansas State University playing for Bill Snyder, who won more than 200 games in his college football coaching career.
After his playing days ended and he earned his college degree in 1994, Gonzalez walked into an Army recruiter's office in 1996, following through on his desire since childhood to serve in the military.
“The recruiter was a little surprised when I walked in,” said Gonzalez. “I was like ‘you don’t have to give me a whole speech, you don’t have to sell me on anything, I want to be an infantryman, where do I sign?’ I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to be out there in the woods, shooting guns and all that good stuff that comes with being an infantryman in the Army.”
Gonzalez said he came into the recruiter’s office so abruptly they asked if he was running from the police.
“I had grown up in a community where a lot of folks joined the military and it was something I had always wanted to do, I just wanted to get my education first,” said Gonzalez.
In 1996, Gonzalez arrived at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, his first duty station. Six years later he went to try out for Special Forces, eventually joined the 7th Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Now a member of the Green Berets, Gonzalez trained, advised and assisted numerous times in South and Central America.
Like many in the combat arms and special forces community, there were multiple deployments to Afghanistan during two decades of war. The events of June 11, 2007, remain clear in Gonzalez’s head like it just happened.
At the time, Gonzalez was part of the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 732. He and the others were ambushed by Taliban fighters following a routine patrol in the Uruzgan Province. Throughout the fight, he exposed himself to Taliban snipers and machine gunners three times, eventually saving the lives of four Afghan security forces that had been trapped. Gonzalez almost died in the process.
“A sniper bullet just whispered right by my head,” he said. “I could have kissed it, that's how close it was. But if I had to do it again, I would. That’s just the type of person I am. Loyalty is one of the Army values. You have that in sports as well, the whole team concept. You don’t want to be the reason why the other team scored a touchdown and you lost the game. In war or combat, you don’t want to be the reason why your teammates are shot or killed.”
The Special Forces motto is "De Oppreso Liber” which translates from Latin as "to free the oppressed."
“That's truly what I felt we were doing over there,” said Gonzalez. “They were being oppressed by the Taliban and all these enemy folks and you just know innocent people are being killed when they were just trying to live their lives. In the states, you see kids running around and you see the kids in Afghanistan, they can’t even be kids because they’re being oppressed. It makes you appreciate it more when you come back to the states, so you hug your kids a little tighter and a little longer and you tell them you love them.”
Gonzalez had another brush with death in 2013 when he received news that his son, serving in the Army himself as a combat medic specialist, has been injured in combat and almost died in Afghanistan.
“I literally could not move when I received that call, “said Gonzalez. “I was paralyzed and scared for my son but thank God he eventually recovered.”
As he approaches 30 years in uniform, there is another event in his career that continues to shape him to this day. One he must hold back tears when talking about.
“There was a guy, Travis, who was on my team, just a good person and his parents are beautiful human beings, and Travis was killed in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device on a deployment before the one I received the Silver Star for,” he said. “When I made the rank of master sergeant and then I was a team sergeant, I told myself that if you’re on my team, no one is going to die on my watch. When we came back from Afghanistan, the wives thanked me for bringing their husbands home.”
Gonzalez added that Travis Hunsberger was an “18E,” a Special Forces Communications Sergeant on ODA 732, and he is the real hero.
“He sacrificed it all,” said Gonzalez. “Some gave some, but he gave all. He is the hero along with all of our fallen heroes. I’m no hero compared to them.”
Gonzalez's two-decade-plus military career has gone full circle as he finished out his undergraduate degree serving an internship at the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth. These days, Gonzalez is the operations sergeant major for Mission Command Training Program. He oversees administrative requirements for Soldiers in the unit, not a combat role but still making sure Soldiers and their families are taken care of.
“I met a lot of great people in this business and if I was to change any of it, I would never have met those great people because the good people that I have met outweigh the bad.”
He credits his parents and his wife Alyson for supporting him through the highs and lows.
“I have to thank my parents for sacrificing everything for us and raising us with love and discipline,” said Gonzalez. “They encouraged us to always strive to do better and give it 100% every time. Always respect others and especially your elders. I’m the oldest of four boys and we all are doing well because of our parents.”
“My wife Alyson has been my bedrock and support pillar. She is a school counselor at Edgerton Elementary and I guess she tends to give me some counseling from time to time. We both graduated from Kansas State and love being alumni and continuing to support the school.”
Gonzalez was honored before a September 2022 football game at the university. He was awarded the Medal of Military Excellence and a President Emeritus Myers coin. The university's president, Dr. Richard Linton, presented the awards to Gonzalez to recognize his Army career.
"I've been most proud of what Tony has done since leaving Kansas State University and getting invested in the service, and it just goes along with his nature and wanting to do what is right and provide guidance for his fellow teammates and his country," said coach Snyder in an interview before the game.