By Laura Levering
Fort Gordon Public Affairs Office
Rosa Isern has never worn the Army uniform, but she takes immense pride in it through her service and commitment to those who wear it. And despite multiple life-altering circumstances, she does it with a smile.
Isern, Fort Gordon’s Military Clothing store manager, began her career with the Exchange in 1991 as a sales associate in the toy department of a store in Germany, where her then-husband was stationed.
A Puerto Rican native whose primary language is Spanish, Isern overcame language barriers and discovered a passion of serving the troops through her work. As her passion grew, so did the opportunities to serve in a greater capacity.
Isern was working at Fort Drum, N.Y., in 1998, as an MCS shift manager when she volunteered to deploy to Greenland’s Thule AB for a one year. Without hesitation, she volunteered again in 2003, this time to Uzbekistan.
Aware she was being sent to a volatile area at the time, it wasn’t enough to deter Isern from going. She wanted to be where the troops needed service most, and she found fulfillment in doing so.
“Once I got going, I could not keep my feet on the ground,” she said. “Wherever the troops go, we go with them … and there’s nothing more pleasing to me.”
Isern has since deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan, among other places. She has also worked for the Exchange at locations around the U.S., but her heart remains overseas in areas where she says there is a sense of gratitude unlike any she has experienced here.
“Deployment life is different – the expectations from the Soldiers is different,” Isern said.
One of her most impressionable moments happened while she was waiting to fly home for a mid-tour break amidst her deployment in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Isern spent time in a makeshift hospital surrounded by wounded troops when a Soldier caught her attention. Noticing his badly burned arm and hand, she assumed he was injured by an explosion.
Visibly struggling to open a can, the Soldier did not ask for help, so she offered.
“I opened the can … and the only thing that I thought was, ‘you know, if my kids are ever in that situation, I hope someone would help them,” Isern said.
The experience changed her.
She craved working alongside Soldiers who had endured hardships and who openly expressed their gratitude.
Then, her life took an unexpected turn and she found herself on the other side of needing help.
Ten years ago, Isern was in Kuwait waiting on a flight to take her home for a break from her Iraq deployment. The plan was to surprise her youngest son.
Instead, she planned his funeral.
Isern barely made it to the plane when she received news that her son had taken his own life. Although he left a note behind pleading that Isern not blame herself for what he did, Isern said she lives with the guilt of feeling that things would have been different had she been home.
“I packed, I went back to Iraq, and I stayed there for three years,” Isern said.
Life would deal her yet another blow; this time to her health.
In 2012, a routine colonoscopy revealed several colon polyps, or non-cancerous growths. Doctors removed them as precautionary measures and advised that she return for a follow-up exam in three years.
The follow-up exam revealed she was in the early stages of cancer. Her gastroenterologist made three surgical attempts to remove it, but was unsuccessful, so he recommended that she see a colorectal surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Florida.
Having dealt with her younger son’s death, Isern said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but rather concerned about leaving her older son behind.
“I have to be sure that my older son is taken care of before I leave,” Isern said.
Now in remission, Isern is looking for a second chance in life.
Through all of life’s ups and downs, at least two things have remained steadfast: her love for serving and her Exchange family.
“We argue together, we talk together, we cry together,” she said. “When I lost my son, everybody who went to my son’s viewing, other than my family, was my Exchange managers and my Exchange associates.”
Jackie Perry, MCS shift manager, said she admires Isern’s inner strength and commitment to the troops.
“She is full of life, energetic, devoted, hardworking, a go-getter,” Perry said. “When Soldiers arrive and they’re more or less just thrusted into a new environment, when they get here, she’s fitting them for uniforms and making them feel more comfortable.”
The installation’s senior enlisted Soldier, U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence and Fort Gordon Command Sgt. Maj. Carlos Simmons, met Isern about three years ago when he encountered her assisting Soldiers with exchanging uniforms.
Simmons has since gotten to know her on a more personal and professional level, describing her as a tremendous asset to the military community.
“She is very stern and demanding, but at the same time she has genuine concern and appreciation for every person that she comes in contact with,” Simmons said. “I would like to thank Rose for her 28 years of service to the Nation. Included in those years are seven deployments in support of our service members.
“It is because of her selfless service and many like her that we are successful and able to live in the service of the United States.”
With prospects of retirement on the horizon, Isern said she isn’t sure she is ready to leave her Exchange family. But when she does, she is fairly certain of where they can find her.
“I see myself relaxing at a condo on the beach – that’s the plan,” she said.
This article appeared originally in the Fort Gordon Globe.