Jose Gonzales knows what it’s like to be a combat veteran returning home: His transition from serving as a sergeant leading a squad to cramming for exams was, as he admits, a major change in life situations.
Now in his 12th year working for the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Master in Business Administration student has made a career out of helping other vets get the support to which they are entitled. In his position as a decision review officer, he helps resolve disagreements over veterans’ entitlement decisions. It’s a position that’s typically staffed by attorneys, but his experience in the Army infantry provides him with a perspective to help veterans receive the support they deserve.
“I have a better perspective of what a typical soldier, especially the rigorous positions like infantry or paratrooper stuff like that, what they go through,” Gonzales said.
Most of Gonzales’s adult life has been centered around service to his country and fellow veterans. Following his grandfather’s example, he enlisted in the Army within a week of his high-school graduation in 1999. He was stationed in Italy, Tunisia and at several bases around Europe before deploying with the 101st Airborne Division to Iraq in the first stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Although the transition from the forward base to campus was a little rockier than he had hoped, Gonzales’s time in the armed forces honed a sense of determination developed on his family’s ranch in Capulin, Colo.
Stop-loss policies extended his tour of duty to support the efforts in Iraq and made his transition into college difficult. Despite a decorated record that included two bronze service stars, a Valorous Unit Award and a Meritorious Unit Commendation, the uncertainty about his return date made the college application process difficult. He eventually started his studies close to his hometown at Adams State, as it was the only school able to work with his changing schedule. Ultimately, Gonzales graduated from New Mexico State with a bachelors in business administration.
“I was enrolled from 18 to 23 so that added to my work ethic,” he said. “I think that that made changing gears from the military to going into education a pretty smooth transition,” he said.
With plans to complete his MBA by December 2020, Gonzales has started thinking about how he’ll leverage his new skills. Considering his professional background, it’s not surprising that he plans to stay focused on veterans. In the short term, he plans to continue to serve in the VA, but his long-range goals involve developing a nonprofit to serve other veterans in Southern Colorado using the skills he’s gained at CSU.
“I’d like to build on that later on down the road when I’m able to do more of nonprofits,” he said. “I think veterans in the San Luis Valley are very much under-served both medically and on the benefit side, so if I could help them out of that situation that would be great.”