Editor’s Note: This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led to the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Independent Herald sat down for an interview with Oneida’s Gary and Melissa Cruz, who met in Kabul, Afghanistan, early in the war.
Gary Cruz, of California, signed up for a 4-year stint in the U.S. Army and wound up staying 32 years.
Melissa Perry, of Oneida, signed up for the U.S. Army Reserves, expecting to complete one weekend of duty each month as a way to pay for college, and then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything.
Fate is a funny thing sometimes. It was in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, that a career soldier from California and an aspiring school teacher from East Tennessee met, more than 7,000 miles from their homeland, as both served their country in the War on Terror.
Fast-forward nearly two decades. As the U.S. prepares to observe the 20th anniversary of those 9/11 terrorist attacks, and as the “forever war” in Afghanistan finally ends, Gary and Melissa Cruz are raising their family in Oneida. Their son, Quintin, is a 15-year-old sophomore at Oneida High School, a soccer player who is preparing to follow his parents’ footsteps into the service. Their daughter, Rebekah, is a 10-year-old student at Oneida Elementary School.
Gary Cruz’s entire life has been involved with the military, in some form or fashion. When he was a substitute teacher at Oneida before going to work at the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, he would write his rank — “SGM” (Sergeant Major) — on the board rather than his name. “The kids will forget a name but they will remember a rank,” he said. A few years later, at a 4th of July parade in Huntsville, one of his former students recognized him. “Hey, there’s the Sergeant Major!” he said.
Cruz’s father, originally from Guam, was a career military man. Gary was born in Panama — where his father met his mother while on active duty — but was raised in California, after the family moved stateside when he was a child.
After high school, Cruz joined the Army against the advice of his father. As a child, the elder Cruz had seen the Japanese conquer the island of Guam. Later, he saw the military from the other side when he served as an infantryman in Vietnam.
“He was telling me not to join the Army,” Gary Cruz said of his father, as he talked over drinks Monday at the Gather Coffee Lounge in Oneida.
But, again, fate has a way about it. Gary did join the Army, met his wife the same way his father met his mother — while on active duty in a foreign land — and retired at the same grade that his father retired at, E9.
Joining the Army wasn’t always what Cruz intended to do. In fact, he initially joined the Air Force Reserve. But one thing led to another and, “The next thing you know, I’m flying to Missouri right after Christmas, thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said.
That was in December 1983, still nearly two full decades before the Twin Towers fell in Lower Manhattan to pull the U.S. into Afghanistan.
Melissa Cruz was raised in Oneida, the daughter of BJ and Sue Perry. She had no aspirations of joining the military, but had served in the Peace Corps. After college, when she had started work but decided she wanted to go back to school and obtain her teaching license, she decided to join the Army Reserves.
“I was thinking I would do one weekend a month and pay for college,” she said.
That was in 2000. Just a year later, the U.S. would be drawn back into 20 years of warfare in the Middle East by the events of Sept. 11.
Gary Cruz remembers watching the events of Sept. 11 unfold on television as he was getting ready to go to work. There were no phone calls, no summon to action. He reported to the base like he would any normal day. By noon, everything had been locked down. Soldiers who left the base to get lunch weren’t able to get back on.
It was soon clear that al Qaeda was responsible for hijacking American airliners and flying them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Military action became inevitable. Still, no one dreamed at the time that the U.S. was about to embark on a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
“I always thought it would be like the special forces, the ranger guys would go in, get ‘em, then come back and that would be it,” Gary said. “I didn’t think it would be a sustained type of deployment where all these units are rotating in and out.”
One week after the terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush addressed the nation before a joint session of Congress.
“Now this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion,” the president said. “It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat. Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.”
It was at that moment that Gary Cruz — who had served a tour of duty in Iraq during the first Gulf War — realized that he would be headed back to the desert.
Melissa Cruz had just completed her duty weekend two days before the towers fell. It was nearly a month before she was back on base. But when she reported for duty in early October 2001, the message was clear: “Get everything in order. You’re going to get active duty orders.”
Within a month after that, Melissa’s unit had been informed that they would be headed to Afghanistan. It was a moment she was prepared for.
“I always wanted to serve my country,” she said. “I remember my recruiter making fun of me for that statement. He was like, ‘Quit talking like that — she wants to serve her country.’ But it was really what I wanted. I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance to. I thought I might do humanitarian missions, maybe after a hurricane or something.”
So it was in Kabul in 2002 that Gary Cruz and Melissa Perry met. He had volunteered for his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, traveling to Kabul individually, apart from the rest of his unit. Her unit was involved in rebuilding medical clinics that had been damaged by the war. It just so happened that Gary Cruz fell sick, and visited the clinic.
“I didn’t like the answer the doctor gave me when he told me, ‘Yeah just gargle some saltwater and go back to work,’” he said. “Melissa was in her office with the door open and I just looked over at her and rolled my eyes. I guess she felt sorry for me.”
Melissa sent her sergeant some medicine to take to Gary. He responded by telling the sergeant to invite her over to eat — the home where he and his brothers in arm lived in Kabul was one of the popular places for some of the troops to hang out and socialize at the end of the day.
“That’s how we got to know each other,” Gary said. “We were always hanging out on the balcony after duty.”
When Gary’s tour ended and he returned stateside, he and Melissa kept in touch. By the time she was finished in Afghanistan and returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., he was stationed in Washington State. He invited her up.
“I said, ‘Hey, you ever been to Seattle?’” he said. She traveled to Washington, and together they toured the area. “I never went into the city because I thought it was kinda boring,” he said. “I didn’t see much of Washington until she got there, and then we saw it together.”
On Christmas Eve 2003, Gary and Melissa married in North Carolina. She was still at Fort Bragg, and would be through February 2004. Gary had tried to get transferred back to Fort Bragg but had since wound up at Fort Hood in Texas.
When Melissa’s active duty was over in February, she moved to Killeen, Tex. to join her husband. One month after that, he was deployed to Iraq.
“That’s why we stayed together,” she joked. “We were never together.”
Gary Cruz served two tours in Iraq, and another in Afghanistan, before he was finally back stateside for good.
In 32 years of service, Gary Cruz served in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he was at Fort Stewart, Ga. during Desert Storm, he spent four years in Germany, he was assigned to Hawaii for five years, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, Nc, Fort Lewis, Wash., and twice at Fort Hood,Tx. In fact, he became a resident of Texas during his time at Fort Hood. Getting out wasn’t an option, because of the war. To transfer units was to risk a quick turn-around to Iraq or Afghanistan, though the military has since adopted a new policy that requires service members be stateside for at least a year before being redeployed.
The couple’s son, Quintin, was born in Texas, and Rebekah was born in Hawaii. Gary’s last duty station before he retired was Ft. Hood, Tex., and Melissa had a job teaching school there, but they both knew Texas wasn’t where they wanted to stay.
“The school district there is 40,000 kids,” Melissa said. “Gangs and shootings are life there.”
The family originally intended to move to Florida. In fact, they already had a home under construction there, and had started moving their belongings to Florida.
Then, in 2015, they visited Melissa’s home back in Oneida. The original plan was to stay for two weeks, then meet the moving truck headed to Florida.
“When Quintin and Rebekah came here, they had never been around family and they were like, ‘Please let us stay here,’” Melissa said. “They wanted to be around grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.”
So, the Cruz family stayed in Oneida. Melissa is a guidance counselor at the high school. Gary works for the National Park Service. They bought a home, and have made Scott County their permanent home. After a lifetime of globetrotting, they’ve settled down.
“Being able to see your kids grow up in one place, that’s nice,” Gary said.
Twenty years after the war in Afghanistan began — about 19 years after Gary and Melissa met in Kabul — the last U.S. troops are out of the country. The war is officially — and finally — over. The ending has been a source of controversy. The Taliban quickly swept back into power, topping the U.S.-installed government in a matter of days.
Gary Cruz said he doesn’t blame President Joe Biden for the way things ended in Afghanistan.
“To an extent, I thought the president was correct,” he said. “We’ve been there for 20 years. It’s like your son. You raise your son for 18 years and then he leaves and takes care of himself.”
Gary said it’s hard to fathom the Afghan army collapsing so quickly.
“When you saw the Taliban rolling into Kabul with our equipment, that’s equipment we gave to the Afghan army,” he said. “What happened to that army? They’re only tough because we were there? That’s the way I look at it. It’s not the president’s fault.”
One thing that should have been done different, Gary said, is making sure the people were out.
“The bad thing is we left the ones who helped us,” he said. “The president’s fault is we left them behind. The visa thing, that’s paperwork. That can be done someplace else. Get them, put them in a safe place, and let the paperwork come later.”
But, he said, “We didn’t know they were just gonna let the Taliban back in like that. You didn’t hear about any skirmish, any fighting. I didn’t think it would happen that way. The Afghans are fighters. They had the means to defend themselves. They just didn’t do it. And they had no support from their own government.”
Melissa is saddened by the swift fall of the new Afghan government. She fears for the Afghan women, like the ones she met when she was serving there.
“It would take them a couple of meetings with us, then they would bring their daughters to see the soldiers who were women,” she said. “They’d be like, ‘Look at this,’ like ‘you can do this.’ I worry about the women. That makes me sad.”
Melissa recalls a time an Afghan girl wanted to slip on her military jacket, and how angry the Afghan men in the room became. And of overhearing talks about how there were secret meetings to teach and train the Afghan children the ways of the Taliban.
Meanwhile, a third generation of the Cruz family may soon be on his way to the military. Quintin Cruz is determined to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Gary and Melissa Cruz haven’t pushed their children to consider a career in the military — “If he changes his mind, we would be okay with that,” Melissa said — and Gary was surprised by his son’s decision. But he’s also proud of him.
“I said, ‘You can go in for four years like I did, and wind up staying 32 years like I did,’” Gary said.
Gary’s advice to his son: Keep your eyes on the prize.
“If you want to strive for that, keep looking forward,” he says he told Quintin. “Guys would say to me, ‘You see that guy over there? If you don’t want him in charge of you, you better get promoted.’ So that’s what I did. I kept getting promoted and then I was in charge.”
Quintin made national news last week, after his family attended Congressman Chuck Fleischmann’s annual Military Academy Day in Chattanooga. A local TV station learned of his aspirations to join the service and interviewed him. Fox News Channel picked up on the story, and later invited the teenager on the Fox & Friends morning show with Fleischmann to talk about his ambitions.
For the record, Quintin’s younger sister isn’t eyeing the same career goals as her brother.
“Rebekah has no aspirations (of joining the military),” Melissa said, laughing. “She’s gonna live with us forever.”
“She’s gonna have a lot of dogs and take care of her father,” Gary Cruz added.