This morning, Sgt. LeShonda Gill spoke at the Santa Clarita Activities Center to a group of children about her life and struggles. Gill is a speaker for Tempered Steel, an organization that provides awareness, education, and support for injured military members.
“Talking to the kids is the easy part. It’s talking to the adults that’s the hard part,” Gill whispered as she stood behind a line of cameras and reporters and waited to be introduced.
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Though she danced nervously up to the podium and picked up the microphone like it was an unfamiliar piece of equipment, once she started talking, Gill was calm and personable. Her first order of business was to invite everyone under 18 years old to the front rows.
“You mean a lot to me. I could be anywhere else, but I want to be here because I was a lot like you,” she told them repeatedly.
After establishing a connection with the kids, Gill made it clear that she wished there were no cameras, microphones, or adults in the room. She made gentle jabs at the pacing reporters in the back of the room throughout her speech.
Gill told the kids, who had come from local high schools, community centers, and the LA County Department of Children and Family Services, about her childhood, time in the Army, and struggles to overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
With candor, Gill described growing up “in the hood,” struggling with temptation to get in trouble, and dealing with the death of one of her friends. By the time she was 18, Gill had been shot twice and stabbed four times.
She said that she first considered joining the Army when she met a soldier with a nice car. Gill said she joined because she wanted a car like his and wanted to prove him wrong when he told her that she would not survive basic training. She had to go back to high school to get her diploma and joined the Army at 18 years old.
Gill shared fond memories of one of her superior officers who faced Gill’s “problem with authority” head-on and never cut her slack. She said she was thankful that the officer taught her to be a leader.
Gill went on to become a squad leader, a role in which she took great pride. Tears came to her eyes as she remembered the young soldiers, mostly 18-year-olds, she had led.
An accident involving an explosion and a crash left many of her friends dead and Gill severely injured. Gill lost a kidney, her spleen, part of her intestine, all but seven of her teeth, and severely injured her face.
And then, by way of illustration, Gill coolly popped her false upper teeth out of her mouth and joked that brushing her teeth in the morning takes no time at all.
While she spoke, Gill often stopped to talk to the children in the audience, asking them their names, what they liked to do, and asking them to smile for her. She complimented some of the kids, had a row of elementary school soccer players giggling at every joke, and kept children from 10-18 captivated for the hour she spoke.
“It was harder to get out of the hood than it was to get out of Iraq,” Gill said. She encouraged the kids to stay out of trouble, stay in school, and, when they did something wrong, “man up and take responsibility for it.”
“Before you’re about to do something that will get you into trouble, think about me,” she said, with a tear in her eye.
Gill was honest with the kids about her PTSD. She has been homeless twice since leaving the Army and it was only last November that she was moved into a transitional program for female veterans after considering suicide.
“If you don’t want to go to college, fine. If you don’t want to go into the Army, fine. But you’ve got to do something,” Gill told the children over and over.
Another point Gill repeatedly made to the children was to love themselves and know that they were important, no matter their circumstances. She offered to give all of them her phone number and wanted them to know that they were important to her. Some of her audience were brought to tears and she shared her tissue box with them.
“When I see her up there connecting with the kids, it is literally like watching a flower blossom. I can’t put it into words; she has me in tears constantly because she’s so raw; she’s so real,” said Micaela Bensko, photographer for Tempered Steel’s Introspections, member of Iraq Star, and long-time friend of Gill’s.
“Every kid here is going to leave different than when they walked through the door because of how she connected. She teaches them without preaching,” said Bensko, adding that realizing the way she affects the kids is helpful for Gill’s own healing.
When asked what they had learned from Gill’s message, freshman Hart students, Saira, Maria, Andreina and Cristian, said they learned to love themselves, not let what others say get them down, realize they are important, and choose to stay out of trouble. The young students shared their career aspirations that included doctor, teacher, and beautician.
Click here to visit Tempered Steel’s website.
(Second picture by Micaela Bensko)