LANCASTER – Going into her senior year, Lancaster High School graduate Emily Moreno went about just like many other high school students. She attended classes, spent time with her friends, watched football games and played libero on the girls volleyball team.
But just weeks after her final year of high school started, Moreno’s life changed. She said problems at home affected her to the point that she chose to move out.
That decision forced her to grow up faster than she would’ve liked, Moreno said.
“I kinda relied on myself,” Moreno said. “I pretty much took care of myself. … I kind of felt like I was pretty much an adult already my senior year. I feel like I’m grown up, so I am pretty independent on my own.”
But the experience of fending for herself – an experience that lasted the better part of seven months – allowed Moreno to make the biggest decision of her life to date.
Rather than go the conventional route of attending a four-year university after high school, Moreno chose to join the Army as a combat medic. Before she chose to help heal soldiers injured in combat, she had to fight to heal herself.
Living on her own wasn’t easy for Moreno.
Instead of going to football games with friends or attending volleyball practices and games with her teammates, Moreno went to her job at Panda Express so she could put gas in her car and pay for food and other necessities. At the time, she felt very upset that the situation at home drove her out.
“I feel like my senior year was kinda taken away from me,” Moreno said. “I wanted to just be like my friends and kick back, have fun and do whatever. But I kinda had to grow up and I had to support myself and be my own adult.”
Moreno left her home in September and stayed with her boyfriend’s family for a short time. She then moved in with her best friend and her family, where she lived until April.
Sometime in between, an Army recruiter walked into one of Moreno’s classes and talked about what it would be like to join the military. Much to Moreno’s surprise, the recruiter’s words resonated with her.
“For some reason, everything he was saying lit like a spark in me,” Moreno said, adding that she met with the recruiter some time later to get more information. “After everything he had told me, I was pretty much hooked on being in the military.”
But choosing the military over college wasn’t as simple as it seemed for Moreno. She said joining the Army was, at first, a decision based more on necessity rather than desire.
Moreno made the choice shortly after moving away from home, and she still felt anger toward her parents – particularly her father, to whom she was not speaking at the time. Moreno said that in her mind, she didn’t think she would ever move back home or talk to her parents again after already having left.
Because of that, college wasn’t a viable option for Moreno, as she knew she couldn’t afford it on her own, and she didn’t want to ask her parents for help, she said.
“At the time, I feel like that (the military) was kinda my only choice,” Moreno said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was either military or just working.”
While Moreno figured out post-high school life, her academic life faltered. She began to skip classes, causing her grades to fall.
For a moment, it appeared that Moreno would crumble under her circumstances. But in a flash, she rose up in the face of adversity.
Moreno decided enough was enough.
There was no reason to flunk out of high school, she thought. So around late November, after volleyball season, Moreno walked into the school counselor’s office, described her situation and asked to be placed on independent study.
The counselor approved Moreno’s request. Any time she had a free moment, she worked on homework packets. When she’d finish, she requested more.
“I was determined to get all my stuff done,” Moreno said. “I didnt want to worry about not graduating or having credits missing. So I was doing homework all day long until I was working.”
Moreno’s diligence allowed her to finish her high school requirements in mid-April, over a month before the rest of her classmates. She did, however, walk with her friends during the graduation ceremony.
But Moreno did attend one class: the Associated Student Body, where she worked as a historian. It was there that her teacher, Alfredo Garcia, gave her some sage advice about her decision to join the Army.
Moreno said Garcia told her that no matter what someone thinks of the choices she’s making, her choices are her own and no one else will make them for her.
“He was a really big role model to me senior year,” Moreno said. “He knew everything that was going on at home. … He was always making sure I was fine.”
DJ Hein, Moreno’s volleyball coach at Lancaster, also supported her during her difficult senior year, she said. Moreno has known Hein for most of her life, and called him the “coolest person on the planet.”
“I wish he was my dad,” Moreno said of Hein. “I do.”
But in April, Moreno got her real dad, Angel, back. After a conversation with him, Moreno decided it was time for her to return home and make amends.
“I don’t wanna leave mad,” Moreno said. “I don’t wanna leave with regrets and everything of not talking to (him). I don’t know when the next time I’ll come back home (will be). I think it’s better that we kinda reconnected about it.”
Moreno’s mother, Karen, initially disapproved of her joining the Army, especially to become a combat medic. But Moreno said her mom eventually came around and helped her fill out all the paperwork she needed.
“Now she’s like Army mom,” Moreno said.
But Moreno is not an Army kid. She will be the first in her family to join any branch of the military, she said.
Moreno does, however, know several people who joined the military in recent years. One of them is her boyfriend, Nikko Villarrial, who also graduated from Lancaster and joined the Army to become a mental health specialist.
Moreno left June 27 to Fort Jackson in South Carolina. After nine weeks of basic training, she will return home for a brief time before leaving for a five-month job training stint in San Antonio.
But Moreno’s biggest concern joining the Army is not the inherent danger of working as a combat medic. She’s more worried about basic training, and not having the ability to pick up the phone at a moment’s notice to call her friends or her mom, she said.
Moreno is also afraid she’ll make a mistake and get blasted for it. She understands that in the Army, the drill sergeants constantly berate recruits, and is not looking forward to that aspect of the military.
“I don’t really take when people yell at me very well,” Moreno said. “I’ll crumble, I’ll cry. I’m gonna have to get over that, too.”
Food might be a problem for Moreno as well, as she is a self-ascribed “picky eater.”
“If I don’t like how it feels, I won’t eat it,” Moreno said. “Or if I don’t like how it looks, I won’t eat it.”
Moreno said she’ll have to adjust to not knowing exactly what’s in her food. But she thinks she can survive the nine weeks.
“I think if I can get past basic, I’ll be fine,” Moreno said.
But otherwise, Moreno feels excited to join the Army. She said she’s looking forward to learning about her chosen profession, making friends and traveling.
Moreno signed up for four years of active duty, she said, and may sign up again if she enjoys her work. If she ends up liking the medical field in general, Moreno said she might try attending medical school or becoming a paramedic.
As Moreno thought about why she decided to join the Army in the first place, she came to a realization: Even if she still lived at home back in early October when she first met the Army recruiter, she believes she would have still chosen to forgo college and join.
In the end, Moreno is at peace with her choice.
“I honestly think the military was what … I was supposed to do,” Moreno said.