COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Army Sgt. 1st Class Denise Ronneburg, the supply sergeant for the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, said her upbringing in Orange Walk, Belize, provided the springboard to experiences that shaped her Army career and life.
Once the site of the large Mayan Empire, Lamanai, Orange Walk is in northwestern Belize, a country in Central America along the southwestern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. The area's main inhabitants are mestizos, people of mixed European and indigenous descent.
"I would compare it to living in the country," said Ronneburg of her hometown, which she said smells of sugarcane due to the cultivation of raw sugar there, lending to its nickname of "Sugah City." But there is more to it than that.
"I grew up near a slaughterhouse," she said. "My brother and I could walk across the street and grab liver from the cows and go fishing with it as bait. Our friends were always over; it was a good childhood."
Ronneburg is part of a growing Hispanic population within the Army. In 1985, only 3 percent of the Army force identified as Hispanic. Today, more than 149,000 Hispanic Americans serve in the Army, representing roughly 15 percent of the total force.
"As much as I don't look Hispanic, I surprise people with how Hispanic I really am," said Ronneburg. "I get to talk about my childhood and my mestizos and Creole heritage that many people don't know about me. It is a source of pride."
Ronneburg lived in Orange Walk until she turned 10, when she and her brother immigrated to the United States under her father's naturalized citizenship in 1999.
They moved to Jamaica Queens, New York, and a year later, to Jersey City, New Jersey. Ronneburg had an advantage over other Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. in that she did not have to learn English, as it is Belize's official language.
She did, however, have to assimilate within the New Jersey public school system, which she remembers being much different from her Catholic school upbringing in Belize. Although she was now in a mixing bowl of students from different cultures and backgrounds, it was not long before she and her classmates experienced an event that united and galvanized them for years to come – the attacks on the World Trade Center, just across the Hudson River from her school, on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We dealt with it happening," Ronneburg recalls. "We saw everything. I saw it. I heard it. I was at school at the time. It was me, my brother and my cousin. There were many kids whose parents couldn't come get them because they were stuck in the city.
"My mom was stuck in Queens. Her train left as everything was happening. She got to Queens and that's when she realized she had to get home, but she had to walk from Queens back to Jersey. Everything was down – subway, taxis, and buses. She walked 15 miles to get home."
Ronneburg was in the seventh grade on 9/11, but the memory of that day is forever etched in her mind and rerouted the path she chose in life.
"I went and toured ground zero afterward with my class," she said. "It was still smoking, and you could smell it from miles away. Half my high school class joined the military. That's why I decided to join the Army. I'm the first person from my family to join the armed services."
While still in high school, Ronneburg enlisted in the New Jersey Army National Guard under the National Guard's split-training option as a junior, with plans to attend Army Basic Combat Training during the summer and then return to school for her senior year.
But the Army would have to wait, as her parents had other plans and sent her back to Belize for the summer to spend time with her family and reconnect with her roots.
After her summer sabbatical to Belize, she graduated high school and shipped off to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and then on to Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee, Virginia, where she learned how to serve as an automated logistics specialist.
Upon her return to New Jersey as a newly qualified Army quartermaster, she was deployed to Iraq as part of her unit's mobilization under Operation Iraqi Freedom. Following her deployment, she and her new husband moved to Colorado, where they both pursued full-time careers in the Colorado Army National Guard.
She remembers the culture shock of living and serving in Colorado compared to New Jersey.
"There wasn't as much diversity," she recalled. "That has changed since I first got to Colorado, but I learned you must make your own judgments based on who people are, not their outward appearance or background. We are a team and we have to work together to accomplish the mission."
Her career in the Colorado Army National Guard has spanned nearly 12 years and four units, including the 100th Missile Defense Brigade since 2017, and she has become a senior noncommissioned officer. She said her Hispanic heritage is part of who she is but attributes her drive to succeed to her parents.
"Coming to the U.S. showed me that I can do whatever I want," she said. "But I really credit my parents for instilling my work ethic."
Ronneburg said people from her hometown are proud of her and her accomplishments in the Army. She appreciates her modest beginnings, now more than ever, and reminisced about taking her two children to Belize for the first time in 2017.
"The kids were so excited," she said. "They got to see the Mayan ruins. We took them to the tortilla factory. We took them to an island where they had no cares in the world. They could wake up and walk barefoot to the beach. We'd just eat and swim all day and go back to sleep."
Now, Ronneburg said she will raise her children with an understanding and appreciation of their heritage while continuing her pursuit of the American dream.