Deputy Luis Gaxiola always wanted to be one of the good guys.
Gaxiola admired the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, classic archetypes of what it was to be a good guy, to be a hero.
He said he wanted higher ideals, and to believe in something higher.
“I wanted to be like my heroes,” he said.
“My heroes were, you know, on the beach, trying to make the world a little better place,” said Gaxiola. “Those were always my heroes.”
And from a young age, Gaxiola knew not only who he wanted to be, but how he wanted to do it.
“When you’re super little, you want to be a cop or an astronaut,” said Gaxiola. “But it gravitated towards me very quickly, from a young age: ‘Yep, I’m going to be a soldier.’”
Gaxiola was born Aug. 5, 1969, to Luis and Esther Gaxiola, a blue collar worker and a seamstress, respectively.
Both of Gaxiola’s parents had emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s and met in Los Angeles, where both their sons, with Luis being the oldest, were born.
“You would think with a family like that, you know, everybody else is like six, eight or 10 (siblings),” said Gaxiola. “But it was just me and my brother.”
Gaxiola said he grew up looking up to his father. After becoming a legal resident, Luis Sr. had joined the Army and eventually the Navy.
“He had jumped out of airplanes when he was in the Army,” said his son. “That’s primarily why I wanted to do it … just to see if I can do it because my dad did it.”
While growing up in Los Angeles, Gaxiola said two things very common variables throughout his entire childhood and young adult life: his patriotism and desire to be a soldier.
“The way I was raised … words like ‘patriotism’ and ‘service’ to something greater to yourself weren’t just abstract concepts in my house.”
From the earliest he can remember, he said he has vivid memories of his mom standing for the Mexican national anthem, even when it was just on television.
“My mother stood up and put her hand over her heart and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’” said Gaxiola.
“That’s where I’m from,” his mother responded, “and you should always be proud of where you’re from.”
And from his earliest memories, Gaxiola was proud to be an American and always knew what he wanted to be.
“Playing army, wearing green clothes and playing out in the backyard,” said Gaxiola. “You know, yeah, I always wanted to be a soldier.”
After spending his high school years in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, Gaxiola was finally going to become what he wanted: a member of the United States Army.
On Aug. 11, 1988, Gaxiola shipped out and was sent off Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training.
Following boot camp, in which “structured chaos” was a daily facet of his life, Gaxiola was then sent off once again to receive his military occupational specialty training in chemical operations.
“For for me that was decontamination, and chemical protection and avoidance,” said Gaxiola. “Basically if the enemy uses chemical weapons, we were the ones who train soldiers on chemical defense and avoidance of chemical agents.”
Following his chemical training, Gaxiola was then sent off to Fort Benning, Georgia, to be like his father and jump out of airplanes.
“Airborne school is very different … very different.”
Gaxiola said that in flight school, before jumping out of an airplane, they teach you the points of contact your body needs to make with the ground after jumping out of a perfectly good airplane under the canopy of an Army-grade parachute.
“The parachutes are just designed to get you to ground,” said Gaxiola, adding that they are nothing like the ones civilians use when they’re hobbyist parachutists. “Those are high-performance parachutes like a race car, and your Army-issued parachute is like a Mack truck.”
With no frills and almost no maneuverability, paratroopers learn to hit with five points of contact, jumping from a few feet in the air into a sawdust pit, landing on their feet, buttocks and shoulders. Once completed they would need to learn how to jump out of an airplane flying at 8,000 feet on a “static line.”
If their gear malfunctioned, and the line attaching them to the plane did not detach, they would be dragged at hundreds of miles per hour behind the aircraft. They were taught, Gaxiola said, to curl into a ball while being tugged through the air to show they were still conscious.
“We started with my class at like 500 of us,” said Gaxiola. “We finished with 300.”
By Aug. 19, 1990, 17 days after the United States commenced Operation Desert Storm, Gaxiola was in Saudi Arabia.
“It was a 17-hour flight sitting in the belly of an Army transport plane staring at a Humvee that’s like right here (in front of you),” said Gaxiola. “And as soon as we got to Saudi Arabia, they opened the door, and you’re just blasted in the face like a furnace.”
By the end of the year, Gaxiola and his fellow soldiers were given the order to head in a convoy of nations to the border.
“I remember laying in my hooch, just outside of Riyadh, and we could hear explosions off in the distance,” said Gaxiola. “So I get all my gear on, and I came out and it looked like a shooting star, a streak coming down, like a really bright shooting star on a very clear night.”
Gaxiola said it was one of Saddam Hussein’s notorious Scud missiles. However, it would not strike Riyadh, he said, because as the missile raced across the sky lighting up the desert, another streak raced toward it. It was American Patriot missile running the interception.
“Those things weren’t even really designed to do that,” said Gaxiola. “And the Patriot missile flew and took out a Scud in mid-flight, basically saving everybody. And I’ll never forget.”
Gaxiola said as the convoy rolled through the country on their way to the border, they saw the evidence of Hussein’s destruction.
They saw twisted metal of artillery, dead bodies of the Iraqi Republican Guard strewn about and discarded planes with cockpits shredded to pieces.
Even as the convoy gave chase to the remnants of Hussein’s fallen army, with Gaxiola riding as a common infantryman, he said they saw Iraqi soldiers heading the opposite direction, away from where Gaxiola was heading.
“They’re just waving their hands that are bound,” said Gaxiola. “One of my buddies was like, ‘What are they so happy about?’
“‘They’re going to a hot meal and place to sleep and no one’s shooting at them anymore.’”
After returning home and eventually leaving active service, Gaxiola said he hadn’t had enough of the military lifestyle. And after returning home, he decided to, instead of completely rejoining civilian life, join the Army Reserves.
Due to his time in country during Desert Storm, Gaxiola was assigned to Civil Affairs.
In the Civil Affairs unit, Gaxiola worked to create networks of formal and informal leaders to accomplish important missions in diplomatically or politically sensitive areas. The job took him throughout Southeast Asia meeting with rural communities in the jungles, and building school houses or community centers.
In the beginning of 1997, Gaxiola was sent to Bosnia, two years after the Bosnian War. A part of the NATO military forces, Gaxiola’s job was to keep the peace between two people groups that had been at war with one another for centuries.
After the United Nations Protection Force failed in their attempt to maintain the peace between the ethnic groups, NATO was asked to continue the mission, according to Gaxiola. And, according to the Civil Affairs soldier, American forces with assault rifles can quell things quickly on the ground.
“We rolled into Bosnia and the Serbs went, ‘OK, these guys shoot back. We need to chill out.’”
For a few months in 1997, Gaxiola spent time mediating between the the leaders of the Muslim and Christian Orthodox communities. He spoke with children, met families and promised them his protection.
Retirement and Sheriff’s Department
After returning home from Bosnia, Gaxiola would spend over a decade in the United States Army Reserve. He would help raise his daughter with his wife, as well as continue to travel and train with the next generation of Civil Affairs soldiers.
“I would take them into the local town (near Hearst Castle in Northern California) and ask them to do an area assessment,” said Gaxiola. “In Civil Affairs, we’re the ones on the ground that have to know everything about the players in town … who is the mayor, who is the chieftain, who’s this, who’s that.”
He refused promotions and would remain an E-7 for the rest of his career as he enjoyed traveling around the world, including tours in Iraq in 2009. And in January 2015, he officially left the Army after 26 years of service.
In 2006, knowing he would want to continue a career in dedicated to something larger than himself, Gaxiola signed up for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department at the age of 37.
While not the typical age for someone to join the academy, he knew he was going to have to have a life after the Army. For him, he said, he loved the military lifestyle. He loved the idea of honor and living, breathing a code. And it was an easy decision for him to make to become a sheriff’s deputy.
Now stationed out of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, Gaxiola is continuing his humanitarian work and keeping the peace.
“Out there right now, there’s some dirtbag that desperately needs to be in jail,” said Gaxiola. “My job is to find him, and put him in jail, so you don’t have to deal with him.
“In the real world, I know the lines are a little more blurred and things are a little bit more gray,” he added. “I grew up with this overwhelming sense of what I want to be.
“I grew up wanting to be one of the good guys,” said Gaxiola. “I want to fight the good fight.”