Senator awards Legion of Merit to Army sergeant major at retirement ceremony
By STEVE SHERLOCK | Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine | Published: December 28, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — As an instructor at Army airborne school at Fort Benning in Georgia, Lewiston native Derek Gondek has used some "verbal encouragement" to coax anxious soldiers to leave the safety of an airplane and take their first parachute jump.
"Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is not a normal thing," Gondek said. "You're anxious, but in all honesty, it's pretty easy. It's at a height that even if you are afraid of heights, you don't notice. You're not 50 feet up in the air; you're at 1,250 feet."
Sergeant Major Derek Gondek has needed little "verbal encouragement" during his 27 1/2 year career in the Army, which is drawing to a close. From numerous assignments across the United States and overseas, three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, three bronze stars and one purple heart, to wrapping up his career working for Sen. Susan Collins and the Army Budget Liaison Office in the U.S. Senate, Gondek will officially retire in late January.
Sen. Collins recently hosted his retirement ceremony for his family and friends on Capitol Hill, where she thanked Gondek for his time spent serving his country, including his one-year commitment as her Army Legislative Fellow in 2017.
"I have been fortunate to have had many members of the military on my staff," Collins said during the ceremony. "Their knowledge, experience, and work ethic have been invaluable. As a Defense Fellow in my office for a year, Derek, a true son of Maine, provided a shining example of those qualities. Derek's outstanding research and insights greatly aided me in my work on the Intelligence Committee and on two Appropriations Subcommittees."
Collins also awarded him the Legion of Merit medal.
Gondek graduated from Lewiston High School in 1991. Saying he had no money for college, he joined the Army Reserves in Auburn. He liked his time in the reserves so much that he joined the Army full time.
He has served in such capacities as a rifleman, a parachute infantry regiment, squad leader, jumpmaster instructor and a platoon sergeant.
He has also served in Korea and Germany.
His time teaching airborne school for two years and two years teaching at jumpmaster school are among his favorite assignments.
"That was a pretty rewarding experience," he said. "I had never been a teacher before. Once you have a young individual who is struggling with something and they get it – you can see that light flick on. They actually understand what you are trying to tell and show them. They just get it and its actually pretty rewarding."
During his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Gondek received three Bronze Stars, but those medals are no big deal for the Lewiston native.
"Bronze Star, let's be honest, that's become a norm for a deployment to one of our theaters of war," he said.
His Purple Heart came in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2009. He and his men were on a dismounted patrol along with Afghan troops when a IED (improvised explosive device) detonated. Shrapnel from the bomb struck Gondek, causing facial injuries, of which he has since recovered.
In 2017, Gondek moved to Washington, D.C., to begin his work for Sen. Collins, which he described as an amazing opportunity. He helped with research on military matters and assisted Collins on upcoming legislation concerning the military.
After a year, he switched to the Army Budget Liaison Office, which he describes as working with the appropriators in the Senate or researching questions about a program the Army is spending money on, a constituent request or an issue from a veteran. His time in the liaison office has allowed him to view how other senators work in comparison with Collins.
"Working for her requires a lot of work. She's a diligent boss," Gondek said. "I can tell you there is not a harder working senator."
He is married to Maura and they have three daughters – Winifred, 13, Eleanor, 13, and Zoey, 10. Collins presented Maura with a spouse's certificate for the family's moral support.
Gondek looks back in amazement, even now, at all he accomplished by joining the Army.
"It's been an honor to serve in the military," Gondek said. "I've enjoyed it. It's given me some opportunities that I never would have thought possible in my wildest dreams. Graduating from Lewiston High School – I never expect myself to be working for Sen. Collins."
(c)2019 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)
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