SAN ANTONIO, TX, UNITED STATES
Story by Sgt. Matthew Marsilia
“I have very fond memories as a child of living in abandoned homes,” said Staff Sgt. Vinny Oraliya, a culinary specialist, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 299th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
Her journey from abandoned homes and foster care in San Antonio, Texas, to a Soldier in the U.S. Army, she says, is proof that any barrier, no matter the size, can be broken.
“There were times when we were running from the police and hiding in the gullies under bridges, even sleeping there some nights,” said Oraliya.
Although her mother and father were consumed by a life of crime and addiction, Oraliya distinctly remembers her father’s presence and the impact he left on her.
“My dad, although he was doing what he was doing, was very protective of me as his daughter,” Oraliya said. “When we would be given the opportunity to spend the night at a shelter, he would have me and my sister sleep with our hands in his pockets and our bodies kind of underneath him. There would be predators at the shelter so my dad made sure of our protection.”
When her father would get into trouble with law enforcement, Oraliya says they would sometimes resort to creativity to evade them.
“I remember running down into the drain where the sewers were,” said Oraliya. “My sister and I would watch the running feet of the police officers go by as they looked for my father. He would attempt to comfort us by trying to make it fun, saying ‘We’re playing Ninja Turtles.’ Of course, we couldn’t grasp the severity of the situation at the time, but it alleviated the fear.”
Oraliya’s father would sometimes bring her to visit her incarcerated mother in a very unorthodox manner.
“We would go in the parking lot and throw rocks at the windows during certain times of the day when we knew my mother would have recreation time or free time,” said Oraliya. She would come wave at us and we’d wave back. It was those little things my dad did for me that were impactful considering the environment of my upbringing.”
Oraliya was taught her humility at a very young age. Her father, not having money for food, would sometimes go to the back of restaurants to retrieve thrown-away meals in dumpsters to feed his children.
“A couple of times some workers would notice us digging in the trash cans, go back inside, and come back out with leftover food that was going to be thrown away,” she said. “My dad was very humbled and grateful for their kind acts. He would always say ‘God bless you,’ or ‘Thank you’.”
Oraliya believes those experiences helped mold her to become the woman she is today.
“God will always put us through stuff we can handle,” she said. “I have a different sense of gratefulness for the simplest of things, even a plate of food in front of me. That’s the reason I wanted to be a cook in the first place because food was one of those things that weren’t always promised.”
After years of witnessing her parents in and out of jail and constantly losing custody of her and her siblings, Oraliya was inevitably forced into a life of foster care at the age of 12.
What seemed like a fresh start for Oraliya, was in actuality, more trauma awaiting in the early stages of her adolescence.
After a short-lived experience at a foster home, Oraliya was soon adopted into a family where she was introduced to her adoptive mother who tormented her both physically and psychologically.
“I remember one time she went to hit me and I ducked out of the way, which resulted in her tripping over a coffee table,” said Oraliya. “She got up pissed off and I was so terrified that I ran to the kitchen looking for something to protect myself. I grabbed a knife and held it with two hands, pointed out, chest level.”
Scared and shaking as the woman was yelling and swearing at her, Oraliya, back against the wall, inched around to make her escape and ran at full speed out of the house.
When she was at a safe enough distance all she could do was sit down, shaking in fear as the woman called the police.
When the police arrived she would tell officers that Oraliya assaulted her.
After deeming her not a threat to herself and others around her, she was checked out and returned to the home.
Oraliya would attempt multiple times to escape the household. She would run away only to be caught by the police and brought back. She was so desperate to escape, she even resorted to running to the police station, only to have the same outcome.
She says each time the police would return her to the house her adoptive mother would put on a masquerade, pretending to have missed Oraliya and pleading for her return.
“I told the officer I’m not going in there,” she said. “He told me I’m either going inside that house or I’m going to juvie. My mind was already made up. I remembered my experience at juvie. I had a little bathroom, and the detention officers treated me with respect. I would even have food, you know, be properly fed, since they were depriving me at the house.”
After a short stint in juvie, Oraliya, now 15, would age out of the foster care system eager to begin a life of independence.
“I worked two jobs,” she said. “Little Caesar’s and Church’s Chicken. That’s all I ever knew, working at fast-food establishments. I had little to none experience in any other line of work.”
It was at the age of 25 when Oraliya decided to volunteer for the U.S. Army.
To volunteer, she would have to get a waiver concerning the charge placed on her record as an adolescent.
“I always just wanted a family even up to the age of 25,” she said. “I never had real guidance or discipline, it was all on my own. I had help along the way but at the end of the day, it was their job to guide me. It was in the Army where noncommissioned officers I’ve come in contact with helped mold me into a leader and build my confidence.”
Master Sgt. Joseph Taylor, senior culinary management NCO, assigned to HHC BDE, 1st SBCT, 4th Inf. Div., was one of those leaders who made an impact on Oraliya’s experience in the organization.
“Staff Sgt. Oraliya defines what a leader is in its purest form,” said Taylor. “She is always eager to learn and expand her military occupational specialty knowledge. She would come into my office so often asking for professional advice, other Soldiers would joke about putting a desk and a computer in there for her. Adding that on top of taking the time out to ensure all her Soldiers’ needs are met, both personally and professionally, you have the complete Soldier.”
Since Oraliya, now a mother of three has found a family within the Army, she is looking forward to making it bigger.
With her next assignment as an Army recruiter, she is eager to share her story with future members across the formation.
“I hope I can change lives with my journey,” said Oraliya. “I can show future Soldiers that your upbringing and your past adversities don’t shape who you are. It is the unique perspectives and backgrounds we bring to the Army organization that continually make it stronger.”