LOP BURI, Thailand --
Exercise Cobra Gold has taken place in Thailand for the past 33 years. During its 34th iteration, Cobra Gold 2015 focuses on humanitarian civic action, community engagement and medical activities to support the needs and humanitarian interests of civilian populations in the region. This year, the 24 participating nations are working together to advance regional security and practicing effective responses to crises in the area.
The teamwork for Cobra Gold doesn’t only involve planning, though. The Combined Joint Civil-Military Operation Task Force is responsible for the Engineer Civil/Humanitarian Assistance Program portion of the exercise. The culmination of activities by HCA troops will be building and dedicating four new multi-purpose structures in four different communities across the country.
Meanwhile, the Civil Affairs Group team helps support the countrywide engineering through by building relationships, displaying capabilities and gaining the trust of those communities.
As CG 15 takes place, the locals welcome U.S.Forces with open arms. The smiles on children faces and a warm “Sa wa dee krap,” a common and welcoming greeting in Thai, give away the happiness and satisfaction villagers feel when they see an American uniform being worn by the men and women walking through their town.
An 8-passenger vehicle, hired to transport the CAG around the country, arrives at a village and members of the American forces get out of the van to speak to the locals. Although villagers are always happy to see Americans, they are shy at times and the language barrier doesn’t help, according to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Peter Yi, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the CAG assigned to the CJCMOTF.
One key member of the group, however, helps the U.S. forces easily overcome the cultural and language barriers: U.S. Marine Capt. Jengis Gonzalez, a civil affairs officer and fluent Thai speaker on his third year of supporting Cobra Gold.
The 32-year-old was born in Thailand, to an American father with Mexican background, and a Thai mother. His Thai language and an ability to relate to the locals, due to his roots, have provided the CJCMTOF’s CAG with a closer and more personal connection with the communities.
Gonzalez was raised all over the world. His father, a civil engineer, held jobs that required them to live in many countries throughout the Marine’s childhood.
Gonzalez grew up in different countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Egypt, the U.S., and the Philippines, among others.
After graduating high school in the Philippines, he moved to the U.S. to attend the University of Southern California, where he completed an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and Economics.
When he was just eight years old and living with his family in Alexandria, Egypt, Gonzalez set his sights on becoming a Marine.
It was the early 90s and his family was one of the many American families living in Egypt during the first Gulf War. According to Gonzalez, the Marines of the consulate in Egypt looked after the families during the war; their care and actions engraved in his heart ever since Gonzalez described the fear of Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles and that the Marine House helped bring the community together. The Marines would host barbeques and get-togethers for the local expatriate communities, and became in many ways, the center of expatriate life in Alexandria. They even invited the local American families over to celebrate their ball.
“The Marines impressed me a lot, and I think that’s what engrained in me my desire to become a Marine,” said Gonzalez.
Commissioned in 2005, Gonzalez grew up in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer, which is still his primary military occupational specialty. He deployed with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit as part of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in 2007. He then later deployed to Iraq in 2008, as an embedded advisor for 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division.
He later transitioned into the Marine Corps Reserve, which took him on his most recent combat deployment to Afghanistan with the I Marine Expeditionary Force. There he played an essential role as a staff officer for the General Officer's Staff, Afghan National Security Forces Development.
Gonzalez transitioned on to civil affairs in early 2013. The shift started his annual involvement in Cobra Gold.
To Gonzalez, the opportunity to travel throughout Thailand as a U.S. Marine has been an enjoyable one.
“[Being part of Cobra Gold] is fun, especially coming with people from my unit,” said Gonzalez. “Half of the fun is showing them around and playing tour guide. The other half is obviously interacting with the Thai people.”
The members of the CAG also enjoy having Gonzalez showing them around.
“Going out in Thailand with him is way better than hiring a tour guide,” said Yi. “When we go out, he makes us feel like we’re home. I have no hesitation or fear to go out, because he knows the language, he knows where to go and the culture. We feel very comfortable.”
Gonzalez added that it is a fulfilling and rewarding feeling to see the communities come together and to witness the buildings get constructed, especially since those are communities that have a closer and more personal connection to him.
The 32-year-old Marine said he feels lucky to have a multicultural background, and the values his parents instilled in him growing up.
“I didn’t realize [how lucky I am] until I was probably in my 20s, especially now it is becoming a little more relevant because of being a civil affairs officer; so interacting with people comes naturally,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez does and will always consider himself an American first, but has been fortunate to have a family, a set of life experiences and a job that have taken him places and given him opportunities that only few get to enjoy. Among deployments and his personal travels, he has now lived in, and visited about 40 countries.
Gonzalez is currently an entrepreneur when he is not wearing the uniform and plans to serve the Marine Corps Reserve wherever he’s needed, either as a civil affairs or an infantry officer.
His work during CG 15 has helped the Thai communities better understand the meaning of the exercise, due his ability to connect with them on a personal and cultural level. Gonzalez has not only made that possible by translating the languages, but also by translating the two cultures.
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