Mack Gaono said his service in the U.S. Army and Missouri National Guard was overwhelmingly inspired by the influence of his family.
His father, an American Samoan, gained his citizenship by enlisting in the U.S. Army and completing a career as a military engineer. Additionally, his two older brothers also enlisted in the Army, thus cementing his own decision to join.
"I was born at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1978 while my dad was stationed there," Gaono said. "He was eventually transferred to Fort Leonard Wood, and I graduated from Waynesville High School in 1996."
Following his enlistment in the Army, he remained at Fort Leonard Wood for his basic training. From there, he transferred to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for advanced training as a combat medic, believing such a military career choice would afford him an opportunity to serve with his siblings.
"The medic training would allow me to transfer to Fort Bragg (North Carolina) as an airborne medic," Gaono recalled. "At the time, my two brothers were stationed there, but as soon as I arrived, they were transferred elsewhere," he chuckled. "But the best part of my time there was that I married my high school sweetheart in 1997."
Spending two years at the post, he soon received his first overseas duty assignment with 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment in Schweinfurt, Germany. For the next three years, he continued his service as a medic while the regiment completed gunnery training and other combat-related exercises.
While stationed in Germany, his battalion became part of the first American troops to deploy to Bosnia. Then, in 1998, the battalion was sent to the Republic of Macedonia as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
"We had four of our soldiers captured during the deployment, and Jesse Jackson led a delegation that met with the Yugoslavian president and had them freed," Gaono explained.
Returning to Germany, Gaono finished out the remainder of his active-duty commitment and was discharged in 2001. Settling back in the Waynesville area, he enlisted in the Missouri National Guard so he could continue his military career while also pursuing a college education.
He briefly served with a field artillery battery before transferring to the state headquarters in Jefferson City as a medic. However, he soon received the opportunity to become a member of the newly formed 7th Civil Support Team.
"It was a brand new unit that didn't even have doctrine developed yet," he said. "The primary purpose of the team was to provide support to civil authorities in instances where weapons of mass destruction were used."
His career led him to becoming a full-time National Guardsman. In 2005, he made the decision to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) after acquiring the requisite college credit. In 2006, he completed the OCS program and was promoted to second lieutenant.
In tribute to his father, he decided to become an engineer and completed his Officer Basic Course at Fort Leonard Wood. His first professional experience as an officer was in Ketchikan, Alaska, spending two years as part of a road construction project on an island inhabited by Native Americans.
Sadly, his mother died from diabetes in 2008. Gaono continued to work toward completing his education while also performing his military duties, earning a bachelor's degree in business administration in 2010.
He recalled, "After my time in Alaska, I became the executive officer for the 220th Engineers in Festus. Following that, I was the training officer for the 1140th Engineer Battalion at Cape Girardeau down in God's country," he grinned. "Then I became company commander for the 1438th Multi-Role Bridge Company (MRBC) in Macon and deployed with them."
Capt. Gaono helped usher the company through its pre-deployment training at both Fort Dix, New Jersey, and Fort Leonard Wood. During the summer of 2013, the 1438th MRBC deployed to Afghanistan.
"Initially, we were stationed at Camp Leather Neck, where the Marines were located," Gaono said. "Our primary mission was to keep the mobility corridors open and part of that included bridge installation and maintenance."
During their first bridge mission in the Eastern Province, a bridge installed by Gaono's company was named in honor of Maj. Kelly Messerli, of California, a former commander of the company who died only a few months prior to their deployment.
"It was a dangerous mission because we had to conduct our own route clearance," he said. "There were times that we had so much equipment, we weren't allowed on the bases and had to sleep outside the wire, providing our own security."
The company returned to the U.S. in June 2014, holding the distinction of being the only bridge company deployed to Afghanistan that did not lose a single soldier. Gaono soon returned to the 7th Civil Support Team, but was later promoted to major and transferred to Joint Forces Headquarters in Jefferson City.
He retired in July from the Missouri National Guard with 25 years of total service credit.
Like most military careers, replete with interesting and unexpected twists and turns, Gaono maintains his attention has shifted to spending quality time with his loved ones.
"When I look back on it all, I feel like I have accomplished a lot and I am proud that I was able to serve my country," he said.
He added, "But this past summer, being able to spend time with my three children and wife, has been the best summer that I have every had. They have always supported me and are now my focus."
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.