Call of Duty
A strand of beads helps one soldier form strong connections
Marty Contreras’ grandmother had
a nightly ritual. She would go to a nearby track
in the small Texas town of Hamlin carrying a
leather strand of beads, about 10 inches long,
and pray over each bead as she exercised.
They were her prayer beads, with the red beads representing
her five daughters, the green representing her
six sons. Marty Contreras became the final bead on her
strand—a glowing blue bead—when she adopted him as
Although his grandmother died when he was in high
school, Contreras held onto those beads. He carried them
with him when he went to college. When he enlisted in the
Army, he still had the beads.
And they traveled with him to battlegrounds in Afghanistan
and Iraq four times over seven years.
“I always have her prayer beads with me,” he said. “They
help. I’ve used them for a lot of different things.”
College was a must for Contreras, whose grandparents
were hard laborers who sustained their 12 children on
$10,000 a year. But when he joined the Army, it was a special
point of pride for his grandfather, a World War II veteran.
“He was very proud of the rank that I had accomplished
and the things I had done,” Contreras said, gripping the
Contreras’ grandfather died in 2004. By that time his adopted
son, an Army medic, had been deployed to Afghanistan
as one of the first 50 Americans to arrive in that country
after the Sept. 11 attacks. He served there until June 2002.
Three months after arriving home, he was deployed to Iraq,
where he stayed until August 2003.
In both countries, his team was the tip of the spear in
combat; Contreras was the person on the field trying to
keep his wounded brothers alive.
“I was the physician on the ground,” he said. “There’s not
going to be an emergency room out there. It’s me and a bag.
I’ve got to save a life with a bag.”
He was also there to help win the support of the locals.
That’s where his grandmother’s beads came in handy.
“They use prayer beads too,” he explained. “I used them
at different times when we were moving from one place
to another and they saw that and associated it with their
prayer beads, which helped me make a connection. That
connection went a long way.”
After Iraq, Contreras decided he wanted to be a commissioned
officer. He left active duty in 2004 as a sergeant first
class and enrolled in the master’s program at UTSA.
“Education is important in my life, so if I could have
the chance to get a master’s—in my mind, it was huge,” he
said. “It would mean that my grandparents didn’t work their
whole lives for nothing.”
While enrolled at UTSA, Contreras enlisted in the national
Guard, 20th Special Forces Group. One month later,
he was again called to active duty. “I was like, ‘you’ve got to
be kidding me,’” he said.
After training in Mississippi for four months, he was sent
to Afghanistan. That deployment would end up earning him
the Bronze Star for saving the lives of an Afghan couple and
their young son. It also helped him earn his commission.
He came back to the U.S. in 2006 and finished his master
of science degree in health and kinesiology in 2009.
Donovan Fogt, associate professor in health and kinesiology,
said he worked closely with Contreras as a student and
research assistant. Fogt continues to call on Contreras for
help training his classes, he said.
“To think of him going through what he did and now
we’re going to bother him with an exam or assignment. …
But he never acted like that,” Fogt said. “You ask him for
anything and he gets it done on time, perfectly. He acts like
it’s water off his back.
But he’s got that look in
his eyes, like he’s been
Finishing his degree,
knew he wanted to
start his own company,
but he needed financing.
So once more he
traveled to Afghanistan,
but this time as a
“It was a different
dynamic, going back
as a civilian and getting
paid enormous amounts of money,” he said. “But it
helped being a soldier and going back because I didn’t have
the fear. I feared no one.”
In one week he earned as much money as his grandparents
made in a year. It was enough for him and his wife,
Angeleen, to start their home health company, MA Medical
Services, LLC, which now has 42 employees.
Contreras said he joined the military to pay for college.
He got more than he bargained for, he admits, but it helped
him to grow. The lessons he learned in school, coupled with
the experience he earned on the battlefield, help him run
his business today, he said. And it’s helped him build a good
life for his five kids.
“Mamaw and Papaw, if they could see me now…” he
said, his voice trailing off as he looked again at the beads.
Those beads helped sustain him during his Army days.
They helped him form a connection with people who lived
halfway around the world. And they continue to help him
remember his grandparents’ hopes for him and his future.
His grandparents pushed him so he could have a better life;
he’s pushing himself to make life better for his own children.
“Everything I do, I do for my kids,” he said. “To try to
make this world a little bit better for them. It’s all I can do.
I have to use this education and this experience to do that.
I’ve got to use it—otherwise it was worthless.”