In the Navy: Juan Arriola 1973 – 1976
My military experience was the result of two things: Viet Nam and Houston, Texas. Viet Nam because that’s what was happening in my little town and in the world. The killing, bombing and atrocities made me feel guilty. Friends who normally would have been gentle human beings were becoming soldiers, aware of their surroundings at all times and never knowing when that one bullet would find them. They were there, and my draft number was in the three hundred range, assuring me that I wasn’t destined to go to the hot, steamy jungles of South Viet Nam.
I also had to deal with my warrior legacy. All of my male relatives had fought in World War II or Korea, honoring our tradition of defending our people. My youngest brother was an Embassy Guard in the Marines, serving in Viet Nam, Laos and in Cambodia, the latter two a refuge for the Viet Cong. He was there for the fall of Saigon. The evacuation of the embassy was a difficult duty — friends expected you to get them out, while others were holding onto the helicopter as they became airborne. Decisions were made to clear the helicopter, and it was his responsibility to shoot people off. My eldest brother, who had been in the Navy, wound up in Viet Nam. Assigned duty on a patrol boat, he was a river rat on the Mekong. He said getting shot at was one thing, but from both sides of the river was another. Ducking for cover was difficult. The other difficulty was hitting a body—at the speeds they were going, that could throw the patrol boat into the air. He was also in Da Nang for the Tet Offensive. With rockets landing all around him, he ran in the dark for shelter, stumbled, and with explosions as his only light, he saw that a body part had tripped him.
How could I not enlist? I signed up for the Navy, and asked for duty on the East Coast.
Houston, Texas. When I graduated high school, I had to get out of my little town. My eldest brother invited me to live in Houston with him, where I got a job at a warehouse. Soon I had to come to terms with my existence: a ride to work in the morning and a long walk home, tedium in between. After a couple of months, I knew that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I returned home to figure out my future and decided I needed to go to school. I didn’t have the cash and my parents were barely surviving as it was. The Navy was what I chose. My father and my brother had been sailors, so it was a family tradition.
I enlisted in San Antonio, Texas and packed for boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. It was 75 degrees when I got on a plane for my first flight to Chicago. What I discovered really quickly was that it was really cold there and I had not worn anything that was going to keep me remotely warm.
Boot camp was interesting. The company to which I had been assigned was an F Troop. My company went through three company commanders before we were to graduate. We learned everything that had to do with Naval history and traditions. Along the way I was assigned to be our company clerk, and at graduation I was named Honorman for the company. After two weeks leave I was to report to my first duty station, a submarine tender in Norfolk, Virginia. A submarine tender is a fairly big ship, its main responsibility, to repair and maintain submarines. I was a boatswain, a fancy name for a deck hand, or as the other divisions called us “deck apes”. I learned the duties and responsibilities of maintaining and painting a ship in that awful color, battleship grey. We were constantly painting. We would paint the forward, aft, port and starboard parts. When we thought we were all done, we would start all over.
This duty station allowed me to see the East coast on my liberty time. I bought a convertible Spitfire and my friends would invite me to their homes to visit. One friend invited me to West Virginia where I had my first taste of moonshine. I never drank that again. Another friend from Louisiana invited me to fly home with him. That visit took me deep into the bayous and swamps for some delicious jambalaya and Cajun food. The ship I had been assigned to almost never went out. We did go to Charleston, South Carolina, but mostly it sat in Norfolk for long periods of time. That would have been great if I was married, but I joined the Navy to see the world, not Norfolk. I got restless and asked for a transfer onto a frigate that was leaving for Europe. My transfer was approved and I spent my last night in Norfolk drinking tequila sunrises until sunrise. I made it to me new duty station and slept off a mighty hangover that first day.
We headed for the North Atlantic first with port calls in Ireland and England. The North Atlantic is one rough sea. I was either turning green or hugging a toilet. Once on that cruise I had someone throw up on my eggs. I said, “You know if I had wanted sauce on my eggs I would have ordered some.” We made our way to the Mediterranean. Ports of call were Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia. My free time was spent exploring. I took leave, bought a Europass, and visited various countries and cities. I went alone. I learned firsthand about the “Ugly American(s)”. I once asked my dad how come he had not prepared me for that. His response was simple, “Why would that be any different than what you have grown up with?”
Yugoslavia was different than most places. We could leave the ship only in our dress blues. When we got off the gangplank a uniformed, armed Russian soldier was waiting to escort us wherever we went. It was tense in the beginning, but after a couple of beers and shots of vodka, things loosened up. I wound up back at the ship with a Russian hat, and in Russia somewhere there is a sailor cap with my name on it.
On this tour we wound up towing a Turkish merchant ship that had been hit by an Israeli missile. As we towed the ship, Israeli fighter pilots asked us to bring in our tow lines so they could sink the ship. It was there that I got a wire from my brother in the Marines. It read “Do not worry. Am okay.” I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. That was when I found out that Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese.
My last duty station was an aircraft carrier. Our main mission was protecting American interests and lives, a reminder to the world of U. S. capability. On a carrier you can barely feel the motion of the sea. There were over 8,000 sailors on that ship. There were always AWACS, F14’s and F16’s flying. If you got topside, or on the flight deck, you had to be constantly on guard for anything and everything. There was always something happening. My final weeks after the aircraft carrier were spent getting processed for discharge from active duty. I had done it. I managed to do my military duty and still be in one piece.
I had also managed to get rid of my guilt. I had matured, and definitely seen the world. My honorable discharge qualified me for the G. I. Bill. I could now afford to go to college. I said goodbye to some very good friends. I smartly saluted the OD for the last time and was rung off the ship. Ringing you off the ship your last time to depart was one of those Navy traditions. I was now a veteran who had served his country honorably.