Some BYU students have gone skydiving, some have lived in foreign countries, some have transferred from another university and some have changed majors multiple times. Few BYU students, however, have gotten married, had children and served two active duty tours overseas with the United States Army before enrolling in school.
But that is exactly what Raul Balderas did.
Balderas – an El Paso, Texas, native – graduated from high school in 1997. In 2001, he married his wife Ileana; in 2003, he joined the U.S. Army and from there, served on active duty for six years. During that time, in addition to having two kids – Diego, who is now 7, and Natalia, who is now 3 – Balderas was deployed to South Korea from January 2006-February 2007 and to Iraq from May 2007-July 2008. In 2009, he enrolled as a history teaching major at BYU and will graduate this December, after which he will return to active duty service.
Balderas said military service has helped him become a better person in all areas of life.
“Being (overseas) has made everything easier,” Balderas said. “When I hear people talking about assignments, staying up late, that’s nothing. When you’re on a tour, you work 18-hour days easy. That’s the norm, the minimum. So, working and having lots of assignments, it’s not hard. If you can (serve in the military), this is easy.”
Balderas said the most surprising thing about serving overseas was that both South Korea and Iraq are beautiful places and are full of good people.
“A big surprise for me was that the people and the places in both areas are very good and very beautiful,” Balderas said. “If all you hear is the news, you’ll probably have a negative image of those places. But there’s actually good people in Korea and Iraq and they were very nice to us.”
Balderas said he was initially nervous and hesitant to deploy, especially to Iraq, but that good came from both assignments.
“I didn’t want to go, to be honest,” Balderas said. “But it turned out to be a blessing. Nowhere else in my life have I felt closer to God than in Iraq. It was just a huge blessing for us.
“What kept me going was God and my family,” he added. “I kept up my scripture study and every day I would read the Church magazines and Church books. So that, God, my family and my comrades kept me going.”
Ileana Balderas said though life as a military wife can be hard, it has blessed her life greatly.
“It’s hard, but it’s worth it,” Ileana Balderas said. “You just have to find time to be together and time for him to get involved in our activities. When you know that you boyfriend or husband or whatever wants to join the military, you have to look really closely at your relationship. Because it is a tough life.”
Ileana Balderas was born and raised in Mexico and said living in the United States while her husband is away has been a challenge, but that she has grown from it.
“You get used to it and you get used to the deployments,” she said. “As a woman, you get to be self-sufficient and you learn to do things by yourself. And that kind of makes you feel more strength and like you can do a lot of things.”
Both Raul and Ileana Balderas said the gospel has helped keep their family close together.
“The Church and our faith has been the thing that keeps us glued,” Ileana Balderas said. “(The gospel) really helps keep you glued to your husband and your children. Your faith really keeps you going.”
“Everyone needs to depend on God,” Raul Balderas added. “For example, reading the scriptures, reading the Church magazines, doing service. If you do that, God will support you through anything. That doesn’t mean you’re going to have a worry-free life, but God will help and support you.”