ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. –
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Maribel Cano-Meraz is a first-generation born U.S. citizen, of Mexican descent, who grew up in Chicago in the communities of Hermosa and Humboldt Park.
Cano-Meraz grew up in a loving family going on vacations, she played softball, basketball and was involved in gymnastics, but she was also exposed to gang violence activity and recruitment during her youth in her communities.
Finding an Escape
“Some of my friends stayed involved in gangs, went to jail or were killed,” said Cano-Meraz. “Sometimes to blend in, you either affiliate yourself or you are just going to get ‘punked on’. --- Being around gangs, I always made decisions for myself, and as soon as I was old enough, I didn’t want to go to my community high school because I knew it was going to be trouble.”
She changed from a private school to public schools when she was in fourth grade and later went on to middle school in her community.
“I would get bullied a lot and that is how I started to get involved with (gangs), and I didn’t just hurt myself, but I hurt my family with my actions,” said Cano-Meraz.
Cano-Meraz decided to enroll in a school that was further away from the violence, but it was proving difficult to escape.
“I decided to go to (Chicago International Charter School) Northtown Academy Campus. I went there because it was far from my neighborhood, and I didn’t have to worry about what was going on in my (neighborhood) school,” said Cano-Meraz. “My logic was that I’m away from the neighborhood, and I’m going to be ok, but it eventually caught up with me in school with fighting.”
After a year and a half at CICS, Cano-Meraz spoke with her brother to convince their parents to allow her to attend Lincoln’s Challenge Academy in Rantoul, Illinois.
“My parents didn’t initially want me to go to Lincoln’s Challenge Academy because it was a (general education development) program, but they didn’t know what was going on with me in the streets or what I was involved in,” said Cano-Meraz. “I didn’t know how to tell them about the issues that I had going on, out of disappointment, because my parents came to this country to have a better future for their family, and education has always been very important for my dad.”
“I was afraid of getting killed in the streets, not coming home,” said Cano-Meraz. “I couldn’t be there, but how do you tell your parents ‘Hey, you were perfect to me. You gave me everything, but I messed up in getting involved in the streets.’ And I didn’t know how to explain that to my parents.”
Cano-Meraz’ parents allowed her to attend LCA for the required six months to complete her GED.
Turning Point in Life
“I wanted to go home because, for one, I don’t like anybody yelling at me. My mom always used to call me a “gallona” which is like a rooster that always fights a lot,” said Cano-Meraz. “To me, it was like I was not going to make it here because of my way of thinking, and the way that I built myself up.
Cano-Meraz shared that the most difficult part of attending this school was being away from her mother who she shares a very strong bond with.
“My mom is my safe zone. I feel ok, I feel safe, and I feel that I can be me where I’m calm, loving and just all right,” Cano-Meraz said. “(At LCA) you don’t even have a cell phone. You can’t look out of the window because they are covered in white screens, so you can’t see outside. Even though I missed my mom, I knew it was best for me to be there.”
Her days through the six-month academy program were much like basic training for a Soldier. She would wake up around five in the morning to conduct physical training, conduct personal hygiene, have breakfast and then march to school in her blue-patterned uniform. After school, she would march back to her barracks with her group to complete homework.
“Being there under the military structure, me being away from home, me not knowing what was going on was a relief,” Cano-Meraz said. “It’s like basic training. It gave me a lot of relief, because I didn’t want to be part of the statistics. I was trying to get away from that. I just didn’t know how to get away.”
Cano-Meraz experienced a few altercations while at LCA, but maintained her focus to complete the program in search of what was next for her in life.
“Being in this program, when people recognize you or ask you where you live, or who do you represent (is frightening), -- but I felt more safe there, and that I didn’t have to really worry because of the structure and because the cadre were so strict and it was so disciplined.”
After she completed the LCA program in December 2007, Cano-Meraz met with a recruiter that came to the academy and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.
A Path to a Career
Cano-Meraz surprised her parents with another unique request to receive permission to enlist in the U.S. Army, because she was only 17 years old.
“When the recruiter knocked on my window, I told my mom ‘Hey, I have someone for you to meet.’ And my parents asked ‘Is it a boyfriend?’” Cano-Meraz explained.
Cano-Meraz was determined to enlist, and explained to her parents that she could enlist now or wait until she was 18, so with her parent’s approval, she departed for Fort Jackson, South Carolina in June of 2008.
“I started going through emotions like ‘I’m really going to the Army.’ So, I went to California (ahead of basic training) for some personal time, and my mom told me to relax and that I’ll be just fine,” said Cano-Meraz. “And I told her ‘Yeah, but it’s getting here a little bit quicker.”
“I remember that I got (to basic training) and I was just a mess. It was my mom’s birthday towards the end of the month, and I remember Drill Sergeant Cheely. (On my mom’s birthday,) I told him to just let me call my mom for her birthday. ‘I just want to say happy birthday to her and you can smoke me if you want,’” said Cano-Meraz. “And he said ‘That’s the magic word.’ He dialed the number and as soon as I heard my mom’s voice, I just cried and the only thing I could say is ‘Happy birthday, I love you mom.’ And I just cried. And (the drill sergeant) was like ‘Five, four, three’ and he hung up. And he said ‘You better go change into your PTs because I’m about to smoke you.’ and I got smoked.”
Cano-Meraz also completed her Advanced Individual Training at Fort Jackson as a Human Resources Specialist, and obtained an additional skill identifier as a F5-Postal Operations, and was assigned to the 847th Postal Detachment at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
She deployed with her unit in 2011, on a 10-month deployment, to Forward Operating Base Kalsu, Iraq, 20 miles south of Baghdad. Cano-Meraz’ responsibilities included postal operations and managing civilian contractors working with them.
Cano-Meraz shared that she enjoyed volunteering for anything that would come up. She volunteered to conduct safety inspections with the fire department, and also became the equal opportunity representative. Later she began to work container movements between camps.
“(I would) keep track of when the trucks were coming, how many flatbeds I needed, and made sure that manifests matched ---,” she said.
Cano-Meraz’ worked in postal operations during her deployment, but that did not shield her from frequent rocket attacks to her base. She said some nights they would have to sleep in their Kevlar helmets and body armor due to potential attacks.
“My mom kept me together during my deployment,” said Cano-Meraz. “She sent me care packages and letters every week.”
Cano-Meraz returned home in December of 2011 and was home for almost 10 months before deploying again. She was assigned this time in Kuwait at the Joint Military Mail Terminal inspecting suspicious packages and searching for contraband. Shortly after, she was reassigned to Qatar.
“The Air Force base (in Qatar) contacted the JMMT and requested (Soldiers), to help at the post office there, so it was myself and two other Soldiers,” said Cano-Meraz.
Cano-Meraz expressed that from her deployments, she learned to become more sentimental and express how she feels to others, especially her family.
“It’s hard being away because you feel like everything has stopped, and you have people who commit suicide and go through severe depression because their families don’t write them,” said Cano-Meraz. “They’re missing their baby’s first steps, the first day of school, birthdays, and they’re missing a lot of things. It stops for us, and all we have to rely on is photos.”
The Next Step
In 2013, during her second deployment, Cano-Meraz was promoted to the rank of sergeant, and was assigned to the 85th Support Command. She was assigned across the street from her brother who is a military police Soldier in the Army Reserve.
“Coming to (the 85th SPT CMD) made me feel more passionate about my military career,” said Cano-Meraz, who is an Army Training Requirements and Resource System quota manager.
Cano-Meraz did not expect to be in the Army for 10 years, but shared that if there is an opportunity available, she is going to volunteer for it, whatever it may be.
“10 years is far away, because I have 10 years to go,” Cano-Meraz jokingly expressed. “If God gives me the will and the power to complete 20 years, I’m more than happy to do 20.”
Cano-Meraz shared that she values the decisions that she made for herself to get her where she is today. She received an opportunity to speak with high school Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students, and now she shared a message for those struggling in similar circumstances as she did.
“You don’t have to be a statistic. You don’t have to be a part of what your friends are. The help is there. If you want to get information, it’s just as easy as you google the lyrics to a song,” said Cano-Meraz. “It is your own choice to fulfill what you want to do. The Army Reserve has done a lot for me, and it’s continuing to do a lot. But you don’t have to be a part of the statistics of getting killed or being in jail. You don’t have to be a part of that group.”