by Logan Walker
To most people who experienced a childhood as Eva Rodriguez did, a life of turbulent adventure and near constant travel might seem like a path to be avoided rather than actively pursued. Constancy and environmental stability can provide an undeniable lure to those who have never experienced it. But, as Rodriguez’s unique life and career prove, normal is sometimes just not enough.
Born in 1963 Detroit to Mexican-descended musician Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez and his half-Cherokee wife Rayma, Eva and her family lived a gypsy lifestyle that wasn’t without hardships. She says, “(My parents) did tough things to keep going and raise three kids. I went to 13 different schools because we moved around all the time. Sandra and I were always the new kids at school and before we could make friends we moved again.”
Despite the lack of stability, her parents did their best to keep the family together in a supportive and loving environment. Art was a pervasive part of the Rodriguez home, with Eva recalling that, “Music was always a part of our life. Rodriguez played guitar and we were encouraged to sing and perform poems, drum, and dance.”
Life would change when a U.S. Army recruitment team visited Eva's school. She signed up right away; “As my dad’s daughter I was taught to love not kill. I was a hippie. But the opportunity came along and I realized if I did not get out of Detroit I would probably end up being a mom on crack.” By 1986 she was working as a combat nurse, and spent a year stationed in South Korea working with the seriously injured. During this time, she helped to evacuate a patient by helicopter for the first time, an experience that left her with a growing interest in flying. Never one to rest on her laurels, by the next year she not only passed the difficult Army pilot training test but became one of the first women to do so. Officer training was intense and difficult, and Rodriguez was striving in what was undeniably a male dominated environment; in personal quarters, she shared a bathroom with 70 men. Despite what must have felt like at least an initial incongruence, Eva remembers an acceptance and camaraderie that eventually sprung up between her and her male co-trainees. Her training took her to Germany between 1988 and 1990 before she was finally rewarded as an official military pilot.
Life as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot was a whirlwind of travel and excitement, alternately thrilling and heart-wrenchingly tense. Sent to Puerto Rico, she spent time acting as a military advisor for Columbia and Barbados before traveling to Honduras, Guatemala and Belize as a safety program manager. Next disaster relief and humanitarian work called her across South America, to places like Nicaragua, Belize and El Salvador. A year later she flew in the Persian Gulf War, carrying patients and medical supplies through the war zones from Iraq to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
The steady and substantive financial perks of Rodriguez’s job allowed her to spend lavishly and purchase expensive clothes, cars, and houses (in both Egypt and Germany). Looking fondly on these days which stood in such stark contrast to the modest lifestyle she grew up with, Eva muses, “I literally lived the American dream.” But the dream darkened when the realities of her work in combat put her in serious concern of her life. “I had a lot of close calls, which make you realize you are not in control of everything,” she explained, adding, “There is a reason why you make it out alive and others don’t.”
Returning to America in 1991, Eva put her medical experience to work as a nurse in Kansas, working with patients for four years. Next she spent a yearlong stint as a peacekeeper in Egypt, an experience she recalls as a particular career favorite, before she returned once more to her life in Kansas. It was at this point that she was surprised to learn of two South African fans of her father who were searching for information on the current whereabouts of the “Sugar Man”, whose popularity, she would learn, was quite substantial in South Africa. Eva, who refers to her father only by his last name, was passingly aware of his status as a pop musician whose song (and epithet provider) “Sugar Man” had been an international hit for a period in the ‘70s, but knew relatively little of his music. Inspired by the renewed interest, she set about assisting in the revitalization of his career, taking photos of the musician for fans and arranging and accompanying him on a string of South African tour dates.
Once back from the tour experience, Rodriguez’s daily life had reached an adventurous and sometimes hectic fever pitch as it seems she was once more piloting helicopters for the military. Soon enough she found her life changed following the birth of her first child. The 1999 arrival of her son called into question how much longer she could continue in a line of work that meant near constant danger; “I was a soldier by day and a mom by night. But once you become a mom your mind-set changes. For the first time I had something to live for.”
The final straw came for Eva as she piloted a Black Hawk helicopter in the midst of a Columbia drug raid, an experience that forced her to realize that there was no room in her life for both her Army missions and her child. Honorably discharged as a highly decorated soldier, she ended her military career as a Chief Warrant Officer 3, and in 2001 moved with her family to the town of Wilderness in South Africa where she set up house in a rural cliffside cottage.
Reflecting on her long career, Rodriguez states that “As a woman, the effects after a war are very hard. Everyone admires you as a hero, but you don’t feel like one. Twenty years was enough, so I took early retirement.” Years in the stressful environment of the Army as well as an awareness of her Mexican/Cherokee ancestors and their tribal healing practices influenced her interest in spirituality and native healing, a subject which she calls “full of sacredness and miracles”.
Eva authored the book, The Circle of Love, a book authored by Rodriguez and aimed at highlighting spirituality and nature for children. Picked by UNIMA as an arts intervention project and staged by over 300 students at a school in Cape Town, the book combined many forms of performative art over a period of eight weeks. In 2009, it was performed for the Amateur Arts Festival at George Society of the Arts Theatre where it was nominated for Best Performance and received acknowledgment for directorial and script efforts. According to Eva, “My vision is to promote The Circle of Love as a fundraiser to provide children with greater opportunities to express themselves creatively, encourage a true appreciation of nature, and in doing so expand their own circle of love.”
Immersed in a life very different from the one she led years ago, Eva has settled into a life of healing and authoring in her tranquil community, occasionally accompanying her father on tours and extending her efforts toward community involvement. Of her preferred lifestyle of late, she says “I live in Wilderness, it’s pretty remote. I’ve been there a long time. So I enjoy Cape Town, the art and the buzz, but it gets too much and then I long to go back to Wilderness.” After a career surrounded by men in a largely male-centric field, her current life has seen her surrounded by more women than ever before, as she is in her own words, “still trying to get in touch with my feminine side.” Now an executive committee member of the Outeniqua Business and Professional Women’s Club in George, she views helping with the club’s Phambili Refuge for Battered Women as a priority, stating “I have realized that one way I need to give back is by helping women be aware of their rights within relationships and that there are ways to pursue justice despite being abused and without resources.”
Although her piloting days are behind her, Eva’s continued commitment to serving her community and the larger world through authorship, healing, and community outreach are undoubtedly an extension of the active role she has always taken in meeting challenges head on and bravely participating in the change in both her local and global environment.