For When The Great Scorer Comes To Write Against Your Name...
Part 2 of the story of Gabriel Palacios
To read Part 1 of this incredible story, CLICK HERE.
The first time that Gabe emailed me a few weeks ago, I noticed this quote in his email signature:
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all. The key is to allow yourself the courage to make the journey."
His personal story that led him to the battlefield is honorable and one that portrays courage and resilience in a manner I honestly have not come across. When I asked him in the drop-off area of Planet Hollywood Resort in Las Vegas if there was more to his story, I now understood why he paused before answering, “plenty.”
An early call to adulthood
An adolescent Gabriel Palacios stood quietly at the front door of his family’s home on that spring Friday evening in 1997. He watched as his mother maneuvered a few bags and items in the family’s minivan before putting in a final box of belongings. The family nucleus he had grown up knowing, led by a single mom working 3rd shifts and extra jobs to keep everyone together, had been splintered. One of Gabe’s sisters had run away from home and was thought to be in the San Francisco area. His mom had spent two months leading up to this day frantically trying to find her daughter, so much so that she had lost her job.
Gabe listened as the van door shut, breaking the rhythmic beats of music playing in the distance. The clap of the door brought him back to his reality. Just a short distance away, Gabe’s high school was celebrating prom and the music in the background was a solemn reminder of his classmates’ joy and celebration as the school year was coming to a close.
Instead of sliding into a tuxedo, donned with a corsage and a date by his side, Gabe slowly shut the front door behind him, turned the knob to make sure it had locked and handed the keys to the Sheriff who patiently monitored the family’s darkest day. They were officially homeless and the Ford Aerostar van would now be Gabriel Palacios’s home.
“I picked up two jobs, both paying minimum wage to try to help out. I would wake up super early and head to the school gym so I could get a shower before classes started,” Gabe explained. “I attended a class period early in the morning so that I could get out of school earlier in the afternoon to go to work. When it wasn’t football season, I worked over 50 hours per week between the two jobs sometimes not getting back to the van until 1 or 2 a.m.”
Between juggling two jobs as a teenager, playing football for the high school, having a total of 3 outfits to his name, and a spare tire as a pillow, Gabe somehow managed to not only graduate high school but do so with the grades and ambition to attend college. His family eventually was able to move in with a family from their church, and even though Gabe’s “room” was a converted tool shed attached to the house, he appreciated the opportunity and kept his bearings and his will to succeed both in check as a young adult who had already experienced the hardships of the real world.
Gabe’s early days set a precedent of his words written that were shared in the last post: “Something given has little or no intrinsic value versus something earned. In my life, I have been given little, but have worked and fought to earn every scrap of anything I have ever accomplished.” He found the rewards of hard work before many of us as teenagers understand how critical that trait is to be in our adulthood. But now, attending college and aiming for a degree in Graphic Arts, Gabe would be another great example of those that have the resilience to overcome and make life better for themselves and their family.
And though this was the eventual outcome for Gabe, it would not be easy. During his senior year in college, Gabe’s mother became very sick and began a years-long decline due to heart failure. She had re-established her life and career and was once again living on her means but the illness was an interruption that forced Gabe to have to make a tough decision. He could finish school and graduate or he could take time off and get back home to help his ailing mother. He chose the latter.
Search and Rescue
After moving home to care for his mother, Gabe was introduced to a few folks that were involved with the Fire Department in the Northern California region. He initially spent time in a volunteer role before making the big jump and entering the No. 2 fire academy in California, one of the most difficult to graduate from in the country. Gabe combated the naysayers upon his entry into the program who suggested that it was too intense for him to make it through. But he did so and not only that, he finished second in the class. Gabe’s new life was about to begin as a first responder and firefighter in the dangerous northern territory of the state of California.
In a timely twist of fate, Gabe also obtained his Urban Search and Rescue certification in the spring of 2001. This positioned Gabe to be called upon in the event of any search and rescue operations needed within urban settings. Presumably, that would have been a need in California.
Gabe had just ended a shift on the morning of September 11th, 2001. He was on his way home and had stopped by the store to grab a few things. Before he could get home to get much-needed rest, his chief contacted him and called him back to work. He had not seen any news footage and wasn’t aware of the day’s tragedies until he got back to the firehouse. (This was before smartphones and mobile access to news and events)
When the second tower collapsed, his USAR team (Urban Search and Rescue) got the call. “This was a big surprise for us, none of us thought they would call in a team from California.”
Within just a few hours, Gabe and his team had packed enough gear and belongings to be away for a month and were on a C-130 transport plane, one of the only planes in the air that day, flying across the country to New York. By 2:00 am eastern time on the 12th, Gabe was standing at Ground Zero, preparing to begin the hellish efforts of a search and rescue mission never before seen in the history of mankind.
“We certainly arrived in New York with the anticipation that this would be a grueling search and rescue mission. But when we got into Manhattan and saw the destruction, we lost hope that we would find survivors.”
“We saved one person. We were there for three weeks and saved one individual, a man, on our first day. It became evident early on that this was not going to be a search and rescue mission, it was going to be recovery.”
The survivor they found had his arm trapped between two concrete slabs. They spent the initial part of the rescue operation securing the beams and debris in the area so they could pull him to safety while trying to keep him calm. The victim was in obvious panic and kept trying to escape. He was found in a stairwell area which was likely what saved him. The team worked to secure the area and eventually lift the concrete slab to free the man’s arm and load him onto the litter. Gabe never got his name and has no idea who it was that they saved that day.
Starting on day one, search teams would come across the bodies of those lost. It was well documented in the media and verified by Gabe that with EVERY victim found, everyone would stop their work while the discovering team loaded the body onto the litter and carefully drape it with an American flag as it was removed from the site.
Gabe’s team worked Ground Zero for three straight weeks with only breaks of 20 minutes in the “Rehab” zone to get food and water. Even then, his group was frustrated and angry because they wanted to be working and looking for victims, even when it was evident they had transferred to a search and recovery mission.
After 3 weeks, his Urban Search and Recovery team was pulled and Gabe and crew reluctantly returned to California. For the next 5 years, Gabe worked full-time as a firefighter and fought against some of the biggest forest fires in the country during that time.
From Firefighter to Soldier
In 2006 the early signs of the impending “Great Recession” had already started impacting municipality and government budgets. To his surprise, Gabe’s team was victim to the budget cuts and he lost his full-time status as a firefighter. He spent a few months at home trying to come to terms with the job loss and where he would go from there.
One morning, Gabe was out for a jog which he did every day. It was still early and businesses were not yet open. On this one fateful morning, Gabe noticed an office that already had its lights on. As he focused in on what it was, he realized it was the Marine Corps recruiting office. He had not considered the military since high school, but for reasons still unknown today, Gabe’s inner voice told him to go to the office.
He entered the building and the “OSOs” (Officer Selection Officer) that were already there, were quite surprised to see someone come in so early. Gabe spent the morning asking questions and talking with them and left realizing that joining the Marines would provide a financial future and enhance his career capabilities down the road.
Weeks later, after much thought and the realization that if a recession were to occur, he would be guaranteed a paycheck for 4 years and could ride out any economic woes the country faced, he enlisted.
Unfortunately, in reflection of Gabe’s past hurdles and roadblocks he had overcome, he would need to endure a bit more. He was originally enlisting to go into officer training, which takes a little longer to process than standard enlistees. However, after the initial paperwork and testing, weeks were passing with no word and his ship date was quickly approaching to enter the Marine Corps training program.
When Gabe was finally able to get some answers, it was uncovered that his OSO had been removed from their position due to “dipping into the pool” which is slang for using his position to get dates. With the removal of the OSO, Gabe, and other enlistees’ paperwork and information had been rejected due to OSO’s credibility. He would have to go through the process all over again.
On October 13th, 2008 Gabe finally “stepped on the yellow footprints” in San Diego and he went through the Marine Corps boot camp. He originally trained in the engineering school as a heavy equipment operator before becoming a combat engineer. He was promoted to E3 Lance Corporal and after training in 29 Palms and going through the Mojave Viper training, he embarked on the next journey of his life and went to Afghanistan.
… he writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.
Gabe’s story is one of faith and unconditionality through acts of courage and unimaginable mental strength. The ability to have these strengths reside in all of us, particularly in times of peril, doubt, tragedy, and setbacks. Those foundational elements of a purposeFULL approach to our dreams and ambitions help us develop autonomy and resilience. These are two mental and emotional traits being challenged in today’s development of our kids and equally evident in many adults. What is the first step to building these two back into our mental repertoire? Purpose.
On Friday, Veteran’s Day 2022, I will release the 3rd part of this story to honor Gabe and all of our veterans… including one special veteran who served in Vietnam and created a charity that would introduce Gabe to the game of golf and all that the wonderful sport delivers to anyone who dares to pick up the sticks. Gabe proclaims today, “Golf taught me to walk again.” It also introduced him to new friends that were part of the charity program and ultimately led him to Paiute Golf Resort with over 100 other active and retired servicemen.
And here, I am… fortunate to be able to tell his story. Purpose.
Photos taken by Gabriel Palacios: