From soldier to songwriter

Former Marine shares how he survived a devastating war injury; guitar, piano programs collaborate with Wounded Warrior Project on inaugural holiday album

GONZALEZ+THE+GUITARIST%3A+Sal+Gonzalez+plays+the+guitar+for+the+assembled+McCallum+students+on+March+11%2C+the+night+before+their+recording+session.+Photo+by+Gregory+James.
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From soldier to songwriter

GONZALEZ THE GUITARIST: Sal Gonzalez plays the guitar for the assembled McCallum students on March 11, the night before their recording session. Photo by Gregory James.

GONZALEZ THE GUITARIST: Sal Gonzalez plays the guitar for the assembled McCallum students on March 11, the night before their recording session. Photo by Gregory James.

Gregory James

GONZALEZ THE GUITARIST: Sal Gonzalez plays the guitar for the assembled McCallum students on March 11, the night before their recording session. Photo by Gregory James.

Gregory James

Gregory James

GONZALEZ THE GUITARIST: Sal Gonzalez plays the guitar for the assembled McCallum students on March 11, the night before their recording session. Photo by Gregory James.

Gregory James, photo editor

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Sal Gonzalez‘s life forever changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Gonzalez would put on hold his dream to make it in the music business so he could serve his country in the United States Marines Corps as a machine gunner in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines.

“I watched Americans die, innocent civilians,” Gonzales said, “and I decided that I needed to go do my part and serve the country that had given my family such an awesome life.”

I watched Americans die, innocent civilians, and I decided that I needed to go do my part and serve the country that had given my family such an awesome life.”

— Marine veteran Sal Gonzalez

He would join the Marines on Oct. 21, 2003, seven months after the initial assault on Iraq in the Shock and Awe campaign. During his time as a Marine, Gonzalez survived six IED (improvised explosive device) attacks with little to no damage, but on one day in 2004, an IED blew up next to his Humvee in Ramadi, Iraq. He survived the explosion, but his left leg didn’t. Gonzalez doesn’t remember what happened after the explosion. All he can remember is that he woke up in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with his leg badly injured. Eventually his leg was amputated below the knee.

Gonzalez would tell you he was lucky because the explosion that cost him his leg cost his commanding officer, Lt. Matthew Lynch, his life. Lynch’s death has been the hardest part of the ordeal for Gonzalez to accept.

“The main challenge I faced was survivor’s guilt,” Gonzalez said. “One of my Marines, Matthew Lynch, was killed in the explosion that took my leg. That affected me a lot deeper than I thought it would. I grew up in a bad place in east L.A. and I didn’t think those things would affect me as much as they actually did.”

RECORDED ARTISTS: The McCallum Guitar ensemble performs and records “White Christmas” for the Wounded Warrior Project’s “Hope for the Holidays” album. Photo by Dan Bodoh

Adjusting to civilian life after serving in a combat zone has also been a tough transition for Gonzales, as it is for many veterans returning home.

“The military teaches you how to take care of yourself in a combat zone, but unfortunately, America is not a combat zone,” Gonzalez said. “Always thinking something is going to happen to you or always [being] afraid of something going on, you just get tired, and you get depressed, and you don’t want to go outside, and it turns into a chore to go anywhere. I had to learn how to make those things not a chore.”

That’s where The Wounded Warrior Project comes into the story. They helped Gonzalez get back on his feet after he was out of the hospital. The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit 501(c)(3) that works to rehabilitate veterans and help them get the physical and mental therapy they need to assimilate into society.

You just get tired, and you get depressed, and you don’t want to go outside, and it turns into a chore to go anywhere. I had to learn how to make those things not a chore.”

— Marine veteran Sal Gonzalez on the challenge of returning home

Founded in 2003 by veteran John Melia, who was severely wounded after his helicopter crashed in the U.S.-led Somalian Intervention of 1992, the organization aims to help those veterans affected by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has paired up with several other non-profits such as the American Red Cross and Operation Homefront.

Gonzalez says the WWP helped him tremendously in his recovery.

“They’ve helped me in every way, from learning how to get active again, to not just learning to do stuff with a prosthetic leg, but knowing that I could do normal things with my prosthetic leg,” Gonzalez said. “ Learning that I could ride a bike, that I could rock climb, that I could do Jiu Jitsu, that I could do anything really. I was abled, just differently.”

The biggest part of the recovery process, for Gonzalez however, was being able to be social again and want to go out and do things.

“Working with Wounded Warrior Project and being with other wounded warriors made me want to go to therapy, made me want to get better so I can be a better example for my brothers and sisters,” Gonzalez said.

Since his injury, Gonzalez has rekindled his career as a musician, starting first by competing as a contestant on America’s Got Talent in 2014.

ON THE RECORD: Piano students also got the chance to record a medley of Christmas songs for the album. They also worked in a master class. Photo by Dan Bodoh.

Gonzalez now works with the Wounded Warrior Project to help spread the message and importance of what the organization is doing, in addition to regularly recording and performing music. He recently recorded with country music icon Blake Shelton. His latest single, which will be released as and EP in May, is an homage to the trials and tribulations of being a soldier.

The song, titled “Heroes,” was inspired in part by the loss of Lt. Lynch, his brother in arms. He was very close with Gonzalez and the loss was devastating for him. Gonzalez performed the song for McCallum students on March 10.

Now for the first year ever, the Wounded Warrior Project is collaborating with up-and-coming artists to record a Christmas album that will be released in December 2019. In addition to working with singer/songwriters such as Sal Gonzalez and country music artist Ryan Kinder to name a few, the WWP project has enlisted the help of select high school groups nationwide to record Christmas music for the album to be either combined with the performances of the solo musicians, or to be stand alone instrumental pieces.

McCallum was one of the schools offered this chance. The McCallum piano ensemble recorded a piece that was a medley of Christmas songs. They also were able to work with a working pianist in a master class/jam session at the Ocean Way Studios in Nashville on March 12. The experience was a unique one for McCallum’s piano and guitar students.

I think it’s a great opportunity for not only the students, but Mr. Clark and I as directors. We’re supporting a really great cause and it was a great experience for everybody.”

— piano director Sarah Wiley

“I think it’s a great opportunity for not only the students, but Mr. Clark and I as directors,” piano director Sarah Wiley said. “We’re supporting a really great cause and it was a great experience for everybody.”

The guitar students also got a cool experience, recording White Christmas for the album, and they spoke with Ryan Kinder, an up-and-coming  country music star. Kinder encouraged those students who wanted to become musicians as a career to stay committed to the job and to be patient. For Kinder, it took 10 years before he gained traction in the industry. The chance to be on this album came as a bit of a pleasant surprise to guitar director Andrew Clark.

“One of the organizers at ETA adventures cold emailed me about the opportunity in June and before that even happened I was thinking, ‘Boy, it would be cool if we could go to Nashville next year,’ so I jumped right on it and applied, sent in the videos,” Clark said.

The album will come out in December of this year and all of the proceeds will go directly to helping the Wounded Warrior Project complete their mission of rehabilitating veterans and providing support to the nation’s heroes.

“This album will mean a lot because it goes to show that young people care about their country and that they care about the veterans that serve on their behalf all across the globe in combat zones, in non-combat zones,” Gonzalez said. “I just know warriors will be grateful when they see what you guys have done.”

 

 

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