ST. BONAVENTURE, NY –Francisco “Frank” Morales, director of the university’s Military Aligned Students Program, has a message about veterans:
"Think of us as people that have been somewhere, experienced some things and are coming back into the community with a lot to offer,” he said.
At St. Bonaventure, the retired Army master sergeant is in charge of mentoring his fellow veterans and ensuring their successes during their transitions back into civilian life.
Morales has worked closely with veterans his entire adult life and believes that they are often stigmatized as a group.
“The one thing I want people to know is don’t stigmatize veterans by thinking we are all the same," Morales said.
In Morales’ experience, veterans tend to offer unique sets of skills that can benefit any community.
“Veterans are so resilient and with their experience are able to help so many people," he said.
Morales has first-hand experience on the resilience of a veteran.
On the walls of his office are dozens upon dozens of awards that he earned, mostly from his 17 years as a noncommissioned infantry officer in the United States Army.
The California native enlisted in May of 1990. In 1995, Morales was deployed to Rwanda and in December of the same year, was among the first American soldiers to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina. He returned to the Balkans in 1997 and was deployed twice to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, first from October 2003 until May 2004 and then from February 2006 until May 2007.
Later in 2007, Morales came to St. Bonaventure as a senior instructor in the Army ROTC program, mentoring and training over 40 cadets who went on to serve as Army officers.
Although many would describe Morales as a natural leader, he says that his leadership abilities were not always so apparent.
“It’s something that I developed through military service," he said. "Growing up I had a ton of cousins, and I was the oldest, so they always looked up to me, but I wouldn’t say in high school I was this or that. I was very low key and even as a private I wasn’t the person that was trying to be a team leader. I was more of a jokester.”
Morales pauses to think and after a brief moment of silence pinpoints the moment he realized that he had leadership potential in the Army.
“The first time I remember taking charge or leadership was when one of my friends was falling out of a fast road march," he said. “I just went up there and took the gear from him just to help him out and lead the way.”
Over the course of Morales’s tenured Army career, he would prove to be a reliable leader. This became deeply apparent on the morning of Aug. 26 2006, when Morales was serving as a platoon sergeant on his second deployment to Afghanistan.
Morales was in charge of a mounted patrol in Paktita Province when his platoon was ambushed by heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire. Morales, acted quickly, risking his life by exposing himself multiple times to RPG and small arms fire in the kill zone, saving the lives of several wounded U.S. soldiers and gaining fire superiority too. His dynamic leadership and disregard for his personal safety allowed him to direct an overwhelming response to a platoon-sized enemy ambush, to provide aid to U.S. soldiers pinned down and wounded in the kill zone and to establish a location to medically evacuate the wounded soldiers.
He would receive the third highest military combat award, the Silver Star Medal, for his gallantry in battle. And his heroics were later highlighted in the “Lionhearted” national documentary series and movie produced by Safariland Group.
Although Morales himself may be known for his heroics in battle, he realizes that a lot of his peers with combat experience do not traditionally talk about their experiences in battle.
“We often talk about light hearted things, like how hot it was, or heavy something is, or how much things suck," he said. "But my most life-changing event was when I lost my soldiers in combat. That would change the course of my life.”
Morales attributed these experiences as his inspiration for becoming a mental health therapist and the motivation to give back to fellow veterans.
After earning a master’s in community mental health counseling at St. Bonaventure, he worked for Catholic Charities from 2012 to 2013. He was a guidance counselor at Bolivar-Richburg Central School from 2013 until April 2017, when he was appointed director of St. Bonaventure’s Office of Veteran Services.
After moving around and living a somewhat hectic life, Morales is happy to be a part of a tight-knit community in Portville and is thankful for the home he has made in Western New York.
He recalled being moved when a banner bearing his name was hung recently as part of the Portville Hometown Hero Program.
“I was humbled, dude,” he said. “My eyes got watery, and I just felt like man, this is home."
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