One day proved to me that this little cruise would be a lot more eventful than expected. That day, I had managed to finally get some rest: Maintenance was complete, the drills were done, and I had at least three hours to sleep before the next watch. I thought it was going to be a good night.
At balls o’clock, Aug. 13, 2012, an alarm rang out over the 1MC intercom system after the bridge sighted three Iranian ships a few miles off.
This was not a drill.
Rushing with the rest of my division to the mess deck, we gathered all our damage-control equipment: Fire suits, hoses, plugs—you name it, we brought it. It took us less than three minutes to put on all our gear. As we divided into several teams, I happened to be placed in the flooding one.
While I was nearly pissing my coveralls waiting for the first Iranian missile to hit, my division officer came into the mess hall laughing her ass off. She clapped and congratulated us for getting ready so quickly—much faster than our normal drill times.
It had all been a joke, something to entertain the higher-ups as we scrambled all stressed-out and sleep-deprived.
As a kid, I dreamed of becoming a member of our nation’s armed forces. I watched the classic war movies of the 1990s and early 2000s: Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, and even older stuff like Patton. My dad’s side of the family is all-American military folk, serving our glorious nation on a few occasions. The grand uncles served as Marines in WWII, and great-grandad was a chief warrant out in the Pacific. Heck, going back even further, my Italian great-grandpa was conscripted during WWI after being deported back to Italy.
The military was a part of my family just as much as my family was a part of it.
When the recession hit in 2010, people across my hometown began to pinch their pennies. Californians of all types were laid off: working class, middle class, teachers, you name it, someone got the shaft. Trying to get a job out of high school was painful enough, but it got worse as companies started handing out pink slips, especially after the Governator decided to cut funding to the public school system. With that, my mom lost her job, which she so desperately needed, and we relocated to the ghetto with mi abuela and abuelita.
Poverty is not fun, kids.
Imagine not eating for a day because you could not afford to do so. Imagine having to sell many of your precious items because no money would roll in otherwise. Imagine stuffing four people into Section 8 housing designed for one person. Imagine living in a run-down neighborhood teeming with folks with mental illnesses, people without homes, and gang members of every ethnic flavor.
We call this “nightmare fuel,” my friends.
With all this in mind, I was not in the position to lift myself from this situation. My grades in high school were crap; I could not pay for community college—hell, I could not even get a stupid job at below minimum wage. Then, as I roamed the downtown streets of Long Beach, I saw a saving grace, a bastion of hope, a remedy for my plight … the recruiting station. Considering my situation and that of my family, I figured that I did not have much else to lose, and, at the same time, I could honor my glorious ancestors in my delusional 18-year-old head.
So, on Jan. 14, 2011, I took my first steps toward becoming a member of our nation’s finest.
Fast forward two years and several months: Going through boot camp, failing corpsman school, and passing through hull tech “A” school, I found myself on the USS Stethem in the Persian Gulf. Adjusting to ship life was a task in and of itself, but adapting to engineering life was another. On average, I worked for a good 20-22 hours a day—fixing old pipes, standing the roving watch, doing damage-control drills, the whole bit. And if you thought the Arab summer was hot, try working in the devil’s asshole of the main 2 engine room at 150 Fahrenheit. I should know; I was one of the lucky few in my division stuck doing the heat stress tests.
Back to Aug. 13: I was wide-awake, and, as my watch was coming up in a few hours, I figured there was little reason to sleep now. At 0145, I took the watch and began my rounds around the engineering rooms. I reported temperatures, sounded oil pipes, checked the bilge levels, and drained them if necessary. Other discrepancies had to be reported to the central control station, like fires, flooding, or toxic gas. By then, I was used to those jobs, having already lost half my sense of smell to hydrogen sulfide and been burned putting out some class delta fires (class delta means a fire includes combustible metals, such as magnesium or sodium). On my second round at 0335, I noticed something odd: The third generator’s hatch was open and someone was screaming out of it from the top of his lungs. It was Harkless, the electrician’s mate overseeing the space. His coveralls were half-masted, tied around his waist while he was shirtless.
“Cino! The f—ing fire main blew out!”
What prevented 150 pounds per square inch of seawater from entering the space was the blue undershirt Harkless held up to a ruptured fire-main regulator. The Navy equipment hadn’t been replaced since the ship first hit the water, and 20 years of wear and tear has an effect when valves aren’t properly maintained.
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That blue shirt was not enough to hold back that much water.
One by one, the bolts that had been holding together the fire main regulator valve for years had been forced out of place. With each second, gallons of seawater began to fill up the bilge. Three gen was quickly flooding out, and we only had one operating generator room.
Oh boy …
While Harkless desperately attempted to hold up the sheer volume of water entering the space, I quickly contacted central control station. Within seconds of my hanging up the phone, flooding alarms spread throughout the ship and a line of chiefs in their coveralls rushed into the space.
Everyone looked frantically for which valve to secure, which button to press, and hoped that their attempts to cut the fire main off would work.
In these moments of panic, I wondered to myself about the job I signed up for, thinking that it would be an easy way to earn money while keeping my sanity intact. But after stressful day after day on deployment, sleep deprivation, battle stations, and now this, I realized my Navy career was probably going to be more eventful than I had thought before.
We managed to cut the fire main before the generator room flooded out, in three minutes, no less. No doubt my damage control officer would have been proud. Being a member of the repair division, it became my job to help braze the old fire main valve back up. Since the Navy hates its “small boys”—smaller surface ships that guard aircraft carriers—we did not have the adequate amount of filler metal to seal the gaps where the seawater eroded the copper-nickel piping.
So, we did what any resourceful sailor would do: improvise.
We melted down some 10 yen coins we had from Japan to make our own filler. Within about an hour, we patched up the fire main regulator, at least to the best of our abilities. Back in 3 gen, they drained the space with the eductor pump and put the valve back into place.
This one long night taught me something about life on deployment: Expect disaster. At least I knew now that life was going to be much more interesting from here on out.
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Looking back, this memory and others alongside it cause me to reflect on how my life has changed since leaving the ghetto at 18. I have had to combat fires, plug floods, deal with toxic gas, counsel suicidal sailors … that is a bit of a resume. All of this happened because I made the decision to be the big boy and support my family, and in all honesty, it probably was for the better. Now, my family is out of poverty, and I’m a straight-A student going to UC Berkeley.
That being said, my military experience did not come without its cost.
I have lost half my senses of smell and taste because of toxic gas exposure, to the point where I don’t enjoy food, and I take no pleasure from any scent. Because of the constant threat of casualties onboard, I have developed an anxiety disorder, which Veterans Affairs has attempted to drown in pill after pill after pill. My joints are screwed up, my back hurts, and now I feel like an old man at the age of 28. Coming back from military service, it became difficult to relate to civilians, and I was almost homeless after succumbing to a drinking problem. While slowly but surely, I managed to cope with life after the service, many of these problems still affect me to this day, and maybe will for the rest of my life.