Tall heels click rapidly on the driveway. She tosses long black hair over her shoulder to search for her keys in the purse slinging at her side. In the car, she dons big sunglasses, checks her lipstick in the mirror, puts the car in reverse and heads for her office at the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB).

While she may not look the part these days, Veronica Maldonado was a soldier.

Veronica was a happy, popular girl in Godley, Texas High School. She was a cheerleader, earned straight A’s, was a track team star, and hung with the good crowd. Her parents had big hopes for her. Which is why they were floored when she came home from school one day her senior year and announced that she had joined the Texas Army National Guard.

Veronica’s parents immigrated to Texas from Mexico shortly after she was born. They worked to instill in their children the gifts of freedom and opportunity that was theirs as Americans. Veronica took their teaching to heart. Knowing her folks could not afford college tuition, she saw the National Guard as a way to serve while likely being based close to home, and eventually get to college.

Family and friends were not supportive of her decision. For such a naïve, girly-girl, it would be too tough, a rough and rugged environment for which she had no preparation. Wary, they waved goodbye as Veronica shipped off to boot camp at Ft. Jackson, SC.

Veronica focused on the rigorous discipline of strength training, weapons mastery, field training, marching, and following orders. And despite all doubt, she excelled. Drill sergeants took notice of her innate rise to a challenge and promoted her to squad leader. She went on to Ft. Lee, VA to train in logistics before receiving her permanent assignment as one of only two women to Company G, 149th Aviation Unit at the Dallas Naval Air Station (DNAS) in Grand Prairie.

Company G was responsible for the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Of all National Guard units, theirs was in the top for first deployment because of the military’s dependence on the Chinook for moving troops and supplies to troops in combat. It had happened before, during Desert Storm.

Again, Veronica stood out as the only woman in her platoon, the motor pool where she issued vehicles, supplies, and licenses. She learned to be “one of the guys” and taught them to see her that way. She was one of the team, carrying her own gear, pulling her weight, even bunking with the group during exercises. In full gear, she jumped into a lake from a chopper and swam to shore. She field-trained in heat rivaling Hell’s. “If we go to war, I want you by my side,” one of the men confided to her.

It was February, 2001. After eight years with Company G and working full-time logistics as Civil Service, Veronica moved on, the experience an imprint that would forever color her life. Raised American, she emerged from the military a devoted patriot.

Just seven months later, on September 11, 2001, a new war began. Company G was deployed to Iraq. Veronica cried with grief because she would not be mobilized with them. Her mother cried with relief for the same reason.

“I still can’t get all the way through the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ without getting teary-eyed,” Veronica said. “It reminds me – I should’ve been there.”

This is Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, set aside to remember and honor those who have died in service to our country. How blessed we are that there are those among us called to die if necessary to keep what we too often take for granted: freedom and opportunity. I am grateful to those thousands upon thousands who have done so. We are the America we are because of their ultimate sacrifice.

On this day of remembrance, I am also thankful to those with stories like Veronica’s. What might be passed over as un-heroic, these stories are, in reality, just as much a part of America’s freedom song. These are men and women who enlist with full awareness that any one of them may be called to leave their families and homes, possibly even make the same sacrifice. They are at the ready to fill the place of the ones who have fallen before them. Many, like Veronica, are unrecognizable as soldiers today, but bear the marked hearts of those still standing, haunted all their days by varying degrees of “I should have been there.”

To all our military and uniformed protectors, thank you.

Veronica pics