Angel Blog

A Tribute to Our Heroes: Iraq War Veteran Juan Aviles

In this latest episode of our video series, “A Tribute to Our Heroes,” we talk with Army veteran Juan Aviles – who we’ve had the honor of working with here at Soldiers’ Angels!

Juan shares about his influences that led him to serve, experiences throughout his time in the military, and how the DOD SkillBridge program brought him to Soldiers’ Angels.

View his video interview below.

Video Interview with Juan Aviles

Q. When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that your uncle had a big influence on your life.

Juan: That is correct. I didn’t have a father figure growing up, and my uncle stepped up and became that father figure. He was prior service Navy, and over the years he guided me under his wing. We did a lot of activities – went camping, baseball games, football games, and so forth. But what I saw in him was that military service member mentality that he always brought with him wherever we went. And that inspired me as I was progressing through high school thinking about not just going to college but making [military service] a separate career by joining into the Army Reserves…

And then I met my wife, who was my high school sweetheart, and my senior year I was thinking of joining the Army Reserves. I was going to be a signal soldier. Then life changed, and my wife was expecting a baby, and my priorities changed. So I made a decision to put college to the backburner and put family first. I went back to the recruiter station and said I want to switch from Army Reserves to Army active duty…. And that’s what I did in 1998 and I never looked back. I appreciate the 23 years that I served. It’s been a great time for me.     

Q. Eventually, you were sent to Iraq in 2004 for the first of three tours. How did you feel about leaving your family and serving overseas in a combat zone?

Juan: When we got our official notification that your unit is up to go, first time going I was in my first leadership position and I had about six soldiers underneath me that I was leading. We had a senior noncommissioned officer and a senior Captain who were above us – luckily they had experience, deployments of their own. So we had some type of history they could bring to the table and teach us.

But when you’re at the gym where everyone gathers to say goodbye to your families. And you have your final hugs and kisses you give to your kids, it’s like a punch to the gut. And it’s hard. But you know what you signed up for at the end of the day. But you go off knowing that I’m not just doing this for my family, I’m also doing this for this country. So we get on that bus and we go overseas.

Q. Before working with Soldiers’ Angels, you got to know them as a recipient of their programs and got to experience some of the appreciation the American people feel about those who choose to serve. How did that all come about? 

Juan: It was in my third tour in Iraq that we signed up for care packages for deployed service members overseas. [The items in the care packages] are donated from Angels that are volunteers that come to Soldiers’ Angels. They either donate the items themselves or pledge a certain amount. [With those donations] we here at Soldiers’ Angels fill a box worth of trial size sanitary items, snacks, and then we have handwritten cards from people all over the world … people who are supportive of our troops, and they just want to say their “thank you.”

When we signed up during my third tour in Iraq, we thought, “Care packages, that’s pretty cool.” Because sometimes you can’t get to a shopping center for some gum or candy or soap… And these care packages come to you and they’re just a little piece of home that comes in this box. And the handwritten letters are just heartwarming. The “thank you for being there to support our country… for being away from your family.” It’s just knowing that there people out there that understand our sacrifices and are willing to sacrifice even a dollar or two to contribute back to us and are grateful for what we do. I’m grateful for them! Those letters bring our sprits up. When we are at a low point, those letters that I saved in my chew – which is my barracks room – it brings me up when I read them at the end of the day. So I thank them for their letters.

And this organization continues to grow daily… There are other programs out there that people might not know that [Soldiers’ Angels has.] We have the mobile food drives … we have the letter supporting teams. We have the blanket teams. We have the cookie baking teams. There’s so much out there that gives back to the military community and the veterans and their family members… and this organization is going to keep on growing.  

Q. You linked up with Soldiers’ Angels again when you were approaching retirement and decided to participate in the DOD SkillBridge program.

Juan: What is amazing is that DOD has opened up the SkillBridge program for military service members. Your last two years [in the military] is very vital. You need to start planning out your next step. So what the military has done, [during your] last six months they have afforded military service members the opportunity to find an organization, a company, someone who will bring them in as an intern – free of charge to that company – to help them grow in the field of what they choose.

I was looking for something in accounting, because that was the expertise that I wanted to go into. I was researching many organizations and I came across Soldiers’ Angels. I was like, hey, they’re in San Antonio. Let me see if I can link up with them… And they brought me in as an intern and actually gave me two roles. I was helping in a finance role and I was also helping in a logistics role. I got to learn accounting – how to do accounts payable, how to reconcile, how to do inventory management. Those tools helped me progress and build my experience that I need, even if I need to go beyond this job scope.

That transition from the military to the civilian sector, Soldiers’ Angels helped me close that gap. And it was great. They’re a great family. And it’s just an awesome opportunity that they gave me.      

Q. Finally, what does it mean to you to be a veteran and how do you see the value of volunteering with your community to continue that lifetime of service?

Juan: For me, a veteran is someone who sacrifices that time to be able to provide – not only for your family – but for the family of this country. And I would do it again if I could. I would continue to serve if I could. Providing for this country has mean the world to me, and how much they’ve given me and helped me grow over the years. I will never take for granted what the military has given me and has opened my eyes to. I just want to continue, as a veteran, to give back to veterans. 

From all of us here at Soldiers’ Angels, we want to thank Juan for his service to our nation and to Soldiers’ Angels.

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