Eagle County troops home for the holidays | VailDaily.com

Eagle County troops home for the holidays

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyBest friends Milton Walters, left, and Cesar Gonzalez, right, enjoy a run together Friday at Beaver Creek after the two returned home from the Armed Services for Christmas.

EAGLE-VAIL, Colorado ” This Christmas Cesar Gonzalez traded the hot, sandy deserts of Iraq for the snowy slopes of the Vail Valley, and Milton Walters traded the decks of the U.S.S. Trenton for a chairlift up Beaver Creek.

For the last few years, the two local servicemen and best friends have served and trained around the world ” Gonzalez as a Marine corporal and Walters as a Navy parachute rigger.

Gonzalez, 20, did a 7-month tour in Iraq tracking enemy fire on radar and Walters, 22, helped evacuate civilians in Lebanon.

Both are currently stationed stateside, but Gonzalez expects to head back to Iraq in April. Walters will return to Virginia Beach for training.

But this year both got to return to the valley and celebrate their first Christmas with friends and family since joining the military.

“It’s been non-stop since we’ve been back. We’ve been snowboarding and seeing friends, making the rounds,” said Gonzalez, who is from Edwards. “And my family is definitely excited when I come home.”

Gonzalez’s mother, Ida De Loera said she has been preparing for Christmas since she found out her son would not be shipped out this winter.

“He got in town at 4:30 in the morning and woke me up,” she said. “It’s nice to be woken up by your son.”

Coming back to the states can be a difficult adjustment after living in war zones, Gonzalez said.

“Honestly, it gets boring here,” he said. “You train to do a job here and you go out and do it there. I feel like I might as well stay there.”

Still, it is a rare chance for the high school friends to spend almost every waking moment together.

Walters, originally from Brooklyn, came to the valley to spend his senior year of high school and met Gonzalez at the prom.

“I was the new guy at Battle Mountain High School and we met on the dance floor. We were the only two people there who knew the cha-cha slide,” Walters said.

The two and another friend, Harrison Brown, hit it off right away and were inseparable, De Leora said.

“It was hard, going from seeing each other every single day to them being away and never seeing each other,” Brown said.

The friends still try to talk on the phone weekly, even when they are on different sides of the globe.

While Gonzalez and Walters said they love their jobs, it takes some focus to keep from missing home, they said.

“You just can’t think about it or think about being scared, or you’ll never get your job done,” Walters said.

Dealing with the isolation is one of the hardest aspects of the job, he said.

While at sea, Internet access can be spotty, and mail comes twice a month at best.

“I was on an all-male ship, and I saw men cry when they didn’t get any mail. It was some sad stuff, let me tell you,” he said.

Gonzalez said he remembers the first time he experienced a bombing in Iraq.

“I was eating and I’d only been there 3 or 4 hours. It hit, and everybody just stopped. I think there was complete silence for about 5 seconds,” he said. “But you get used to it.”

Walters said he had always been interested in joining the Navy, and he wanted to set an example for his 12-year-old brother.

“I wanted him to see that there’s another life out there than being on the streets,” he said.

Similarly, Gonzalez said his younger cousin is a motivation for him. He also wanted to get out of the valley and see the world, he said.

And it doesn’t hurt that they get to shoot guns, both added.

It is difficult at home while Gonzalez is away, De Leora said.

“I have to deal with what they want to do with him,” she said. “He tells me that he is the property of the U.S. government. I have to learn to deal with that.”

She worries constantly while Gonzalez is in Iraq, especially when his phone lines get taken out and she does not hear from him for weeks.

“Then I’m a wreck. I always think the worst,” she said. “I try not to think about it as much. I work more or volunteer to keep my mind off it.”

She is extremely proud of her son, but sometimes she still wishes he had gone to college in Boulder like many of his other high school friends.

“This is what he wants to do, and he loves it. He was born to do it, but I wasn’t born to be a soldier’s mother,” she said. “I don’t know if anything can prepare you for that.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.

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