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Reaching Out to Military Families: The Mission of Myrna Gonzalez

Article - Friday, May 1, 2009

By Kristen Morgan

As a young girl growing up in Chicago, Myrna Gonzalez was surrounded by a big family. She would come home after a day at school to a house buzzing with relatives, friends, and neighborhood kids, drawn by the family’s kindness and generosity, as well as her grandmother’s traditional Mexican cooking.

“My grandmother didn’t speak English, but when she was cooking, the neighbors would just come out of their houses,” Myrna remembers. “Everyone was welcome. I always saw this generosity in my house growing up, and it inspired me.” So it’s no surprise that following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Myrna’s home was once again filled with neighbors, and, this time, military personnel who had been working that day at the Pentagon, located just a few blocks from her home.

“It still hurts me so much to think about that day,” Myrna says. “I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was in a movie.” Despite the house full of guests and a phone that wouldn’t stop ringing, Myrna knew one person who wouldn’t be calling — her husband, Staff Sergeant Cesar Rodriguez, who was on a NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia when the attacks occurred.

“Meeting Cesar changed my life,” Myrna says. “He had been in the U.S. Navy for nine years when we were married, and from that time on, I started feeling more of a passion to help our troops.”

Support System

During their 10-year marriage, Cesar has been deployed three times to all corners of the globe. When he is overseas, Myrna stays connected to other military families through a Family Readiness Group, which offers everything from emotional support and counseling to help with hiring a plumber or calling a tow truck. “When a soldier is gone, a family needs a lot of support,” Myrna says. “We form a bond that no one else can understand.”

Over the years, Myrna has played a number of roles within the Family Readiness Group, including group leader, secretary, treasurer, and social committee chair. “It just came very naturally for me,” she says. “I have the knowledge and experience, so now I like other people to take on the leadership roles while I serve as their mentor.”

Myrna’s mentoring allows her to focus on supporting our troops. Since 2001, she has raised more than $20,000 to provide care packages for thousands of troops stationed around the world. Myrna has sent everything from toiletries, phone cards, and writing material to DVDs, magazines, and snacks, and she’s built relationships with many soldiers in the process.

In 2005, KPMG adopted a battalion of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. A group of partners in the Washington National Tax practice, where Myrna is a senior administrative assistant, even sent 150 boxes of Girl Scout cookies — one for every soldier. Every member of the battalion returned home safely, and they appreciated KPMG’s support. “A box of cookies might not seem like much to us, but it means the world to them,” Myrna says. “The care packages really boost their morale.”

Recently, Myrna received a thank-you letter from members of the U.S. Air Force stationed in Iraq. “It is hard being away from family and friends during the holidays,” they wrote, “but it is people like you who make us feel proud to serve our great country.”

The letter prompted Myrna to write in her journal: “Our military troops are humble people. They don’t ask for anything. It is frustrating when people take things for granted while our troops sacrifice so much.”

Flip through the pages of Myrna’s journal and you’ll find another entry about the September 11 attacks. “If there is anything I can do for these people, I will do it,” she wrote. Four years later, Myrna would make good on her promise by forming the 9/11 Remembrance Committee in the firm’s Washington, D.C., and Tysons Corner offices.

The committee’s mission is to support the fundraising efforts of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, which honors the 184 lives lost at the Pentagon and on American Airlines Flight 77. The memorial is privately funded by the victims’ families and corporate donors. KPMG is the only Big Four firm to support the fund.

“We have a number of former military personnel in our offices, and civilians who see the military in their everyday lives,” Myrna says. “So I knew this was something that KPMG could do, and I am grateful to all the KPMG professionals who have supported our cause.”

The 9/11 Remembrance Committee has raised nearly $65,000 through grassroots fundraising efforts, including Jeans Days, T-shirt sales, Doughnut Days, and raffles for flags flown over the Pentagon. In 2006, Myrna was recognized for her efforts with KPMG’s National Chairman’s Award for Excellence in Volunteerism.

The Memorial Unveiled

On September 11, 2008, the Pentagon Memorial was unveiled, containing 184 cantilevered benches inscribed with each victim’s name. The benches, positioned over a glowing light pool, are arranged in a timeline by the victims’ ages, ranging from 3 to 71. The memorial benches for the lives lost on the plane face the sky, while the benches dedicated to Pentagon victims have the massive building as their backdrop.

During the unveiling ceremonies, Myrna was approached by one of the victim’s mothers. “I told her about KPMG’s contributions to the memorial, and she grabbed my hand and started crying. ‘Can you please thank them for everything they have done?’ she asked. It was such an honor to be among the families.”

Every day, during her commute to the D.C. office, Myrna passes the Pentagon Memorial. “I see people there reflecting, and I think: “Wow, we did this,’ ” she says. “Our professionals at KPMG had a part in this.”