SEATTLE It might be difficult for the average person to draw any substantial comparison between Soldiers and professional athletes. But to Spc. Reina Garay, the two are nearly one in the same.
Sports are no different from the Army, said Garay, a longtime fan of all things athletic. Its about building trust, its about teamwork; its about building courage.
We learn to trust each other to make things happen.
So when the time came for Garays first Army reenlistment, she set out to find a venue that would somehow bring the two worlds together in the same setting: just feet behind home plate on the Mariners own Safeco Field. With thousands of seats towering around her, where fans proudly cheer on their home team, the 593rd Sustainment Brigade Soldier echoed the oath of enlistment Sept. 19 and agreed to two more years serving the organization she originally joined simply to pay for a college education.
I woke up one morning and was like, I dont have $45,000 to go to school, said Garay, who was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and worked full time at department stores and restaurants while struggling to put herself through school after coming to the U.S. at the age of 18.
Garay, now 30, had spent almost seven years at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, Calif., studying to be a veterinarian, when she decided a career in the Army even if it was short-term would be her best bet.
After growing up competing on volleyball, basketball and softball teams, she had elected to join a new team. But three years down the road, the choice that at first equaled a ticket to a topnotch university has given her new hope the dream of someday become the Armys first female senior enlisted leader. And whether shes in for the long haul is no longer a question.
I hope one day I can become the first female sergeant major of the Army, said Garay, who has made her aspirations well known to supervisors and peers alike. Either I go for that, or I become the next female four-star general.
Although several ranks and numerous other achievements lay before Garay and her goal, shes already brainstorming plans she believes could possibly make the Army better. One of those, she said, includes a revamp of its dining facilities that would ultimately make them a healthier option for Soldiers.
Ill probably have some people mad at me, because I would take all the hamburgers out of the menu, she said jokingly, though her goals are anything but funny to her.
Her main ambition is to inspire females in the Army by climbing her way to such a prestigious position.
I was reading that if you want to become the sergeant major of the Army, they usually take people from combat occupational specialties, like artillery or infantry, said Garay, who stands at just 5 feet and is practically always smiling. But Im a female, so obviously they wouldnt think about me doing it. But as I go up (in the ranks), I know I can prove I dont need to have that occupational specialty, and I can still have an understanding of how the Army works, how the infantry works, I think I could still do it.
I can prove, too, that as a female, nothing should stop us.
As the tour coordinator for the Mariners led Garay and her fellow Soldiers on a trip through the stadium, stopping off at its press box and game suites that cost fans thousands of dollars but offer a breathtaking view, her motivation to accomplish great things only grew.
Its an example of one of the greatest things people can accomplish, she said, standing in the stadiums entrance after the tour. It made me feel like I can do something big like that, too.
One day, when I accomplish one of the greatest things in the Army, I would like for somebody to look at me and be like, I cant believe it. You did this.
In researching how she could reenlist in a unique way, Garay stumbled across several accounts of professional athletes who had given up their high-paying careers to come into the military.
Their stories, she said, touched her deeply.
One person who made a big impact on me was Pat Tillman, she said of the athlete who stood as an idol for both sports fans and service members at the same time. He decided to join the Army and left his career and a $3.6-million contract.
It just shows you, just like in sports, how much passion we (Soldiers) have for what we do, because we love this country, and were proud to be here, she added. He set an example of the sacrifice we make.
According to the Mariners tour coordinator, Ted R. Frisk, Garay wasnt the first to re-up on Safeco Field. Over the last year, hes watched a few different service members swear in for another few years and every one with pride.
We actually encourage them to come down and do it, he said. We try to get them from all the armed forces. Were proud to do it.
Frisks connection to military men and women is personal. After eight years in the Navy nearly a half decade ago, he knows the value of their service.
Its very special to me, said Frisk, who opened Garay and her group up to everything there is to know about the Mariners and their home stadium, even showing them a dent in the wall of the press box caused by a midgame baseball.
Ive often said that the group of people we really have to honor, and that many times we forget, is the young men and women who go overseas.
Its really important for me, and its one way I can express, and the Mariners can express, a thank you for them doing what they do, he added.
Frisk even gave Garay a baseball rubbed in mud that had been shipped from New Jersey and that Frisk said costs 40 dollars a liter. The mud rubbing, he explained, is a tradition among the Mariners and American baseball at large.
Garay beamed from ear to ear as she called the event a fantastic experience. Her plans for her next reenlistment arent yet certain, but one thing is.
Im staying for good; Im not going anywhere, she said of her Army service. I pray to God that Ill be able to have the opportunity again to reenlist, because you never know. One day Im here and the next day somewhere else.