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Two-Time War Vet, First Time Student

September 01, 2019 - 5 minute read

Shining metals fill John Gallegos chest on his Marine Corps Uniform.

John Gallegos, a student in CUI’s degree completion program, brings a lifetime of experiences to the classroom as a two-time war veteran, retired professional bull rider and former bodyguard for Dick Cheney. Today he works in the field of environmental health and safety in the oil and gas transportation industry, and is pursuing a Concordia degree to help him start a business to train people for on-the-job safety. 

“Concordia had what I was looking for, and it was close to home,” says Gallegos. “I have six classes to finish for my bachelor’s degree, and I’m already signed up for the Townsend Institute.” 

John Gallegos remenises on his past years through pictures filled with memories from his time serving in the military.

John Gallegos reminisces on his past years through pictures filled with memories from his time serving in the military.

Gallegos spent 21 years serving in the Marine Corps, and first experienced combat in 1986 in a skirmish with a communist insurgent group in the Philippines. 

“I was a private first-class and had never experienced anything like that,” he says. “To have bullets flying, I was pretty scared, but I followed my orders and did what I was told to do.” In his next combat experience, in Central America, he recalls advancing in the dark as bullets whizzed by and his team returned fire in the direction of the muzzle flashes of enemy weapons. 

Not long after that, Gallegos received an unusual assignment: to serve as then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s personal bodyguard on an official trip to the Philippines. For the next eight months, Gallegos served in this capacity whenever Cheney traveled overseas.

“It was always an honor to protect Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney,” Gallegos says. “I was not very muscular, but my high-ranking officers said they liked my demeanor, that I was professional and courteous, and stayed cool and calm.” 

During those assignments, Gallegos stayed close to Cheney from the moment he arrived on foreign soil to the moment he boarded the plane for the U.S. Other bodyguards took the night shift — which for Cheney amounted to about four hours — while Gallegos slept next door. 

During all my years of service in the Marine Corps, I enjoyed every day, even the bad days.

“Cheney loves to joke,” Gallegos says. “He’s very comical, but when he’s serious, he’s serious. You knew that you never interrupted that moment... We did develop a relationship. You bond with them because you’re potentially giving up your life for that man. You want to know a little bit about him. You get time where you sit down and chat, learn about the family. He learns about you. You’re building up the trust. He called me by my first name and I called him Sir or Mr. Secretary.” 

Gallegos was present in important meetings as well, standing or sitting behind Cheney. 

“Everything was amazing,” Gallegos says. “These were high-level discussions. What was said in those rooms I was not allowed to repeat, ever.” 

Gallegos never had to jump into action to defend the Secretary, but if he saw anything suspicious while walking with him, Gallegos would literally put his body in front of him and redirect Cheney’s steps away from the potential threat. 

John Gallegos remenises on his past years through pictures filled with memories from his time serving in the military.

John Gallegos reminisces on his past years through pictures filled with memories from his time serving in the military.

When the season of serving as Secretary of Defense Cheney’s bodyguard ended, Gallegos headed to the Middle East and Europe for more combat duty. In Turkey, he helped retrieve the bodies of Kurds gassed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s. John served as a machine-gunner in the 1991 Gulf War, then served in Bosnia where he lost friends in battle in 1995. In 1991, John switched to the Marine Reserves. 

Before leaving active duty, Gallegos had participated in track and field and bull-riding as part of the Marine Corps’ little-known sports program. As a civilian, he began riding bulls professionally on the weekend circuit. Gallegos, who is full-blooded Apache Native American, had grown up on a ranch in New Mexico and spent his youth rounding up cattle and riding horses. Bull-riding now became a part-time job. 

“The best way to describe staying on a bull for eight seconds is that you’re one-on-one with a tornado,” he says. “I liked the challenge. How many people can say they rode a 2,000-pound bull?”

Gallegos recalls how everything goes silent once the bull is released from the chute. 

“The only thing you hear during that eight seconds is the bell on your rope, telling you that you’re still riding,” he says. “Once you’re on the ground, it’s like someone switches the volume on and you hear the crowd cheering for you, but you’re not paying attention to them but to the bull who is going after you.” 

He retired from the sport when his daughter Cheyenne was born in 1996, “though I miss the rodeo to this day,” he says.

Gallegos had already embarked on a career in environmental health and safety when a fellow Marine, Sgt. Molitor, who served under him in Iraq, introduced him to Concordia Irvine. Sgt. Molitor is a graduate of Concordia University Irvine and received his bachelor’s degrees in business. 

“Sgt. Molitor was attending a program and knew I was looking for a program that was fully online,” Gallegos says. 

Concordia is a stepping stone toward starting that business and pursuing that opportunity.

In 2017, he signed up to complete his bachelor’s degree in psychology. His goal was to create a certifying program on behavior based safety to address underlying causes for why an employee keeps getting injured, even after training. 

“It’s really an understanding for the managers to know how to read behavior and change it to meet the goals of the company to be safe,” he says. “You dig deeper on why someone lifted the box wrong, for example. You get to the root cause. Hypothetically, maybe it ends up he had an argument with his wife and was distracted. How do you prevent things like that? Or maybe you’re reading your employees every morning and one guy is yawning and looks like he didn’t get any sleep. That’s behavioral. You send him home and prevent an incident from happening.” 

With companies spending millions on workers compensation, behavior-based training is one solution for creating safer environments and helping the bottom line.

While at Concordia, Gallegos is helping the CUI Veterans Resource Center put together a workshop on how to apply for government jobs. He also enjoys contributing to classroom discussions, especially in history classes where he shares “extra tidbits and my knowledge of things that complement what the professor is saying,” he says. “Being an older student, I bring a lot of life experiences.” 

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