The night is calm. I look up and I see the bright stars reflecting on the ocean. I stroll through our flight deck, contemplating our mission, feeling excited, yet cautious, about what lies ahead. Since high school I wanted to join the military and accomplish something meaningful for my country. Now I’m on board a Navy warship with 300 whom I call my brothers and my sisters. I feel weightless. My first mission is to conduct anti-piracy operations.
I walk into the Central Control Station before heading to bed. Some of my VBSS shipmates are there, monitoring our target via the night vision green screens that line our corridors. I’m sure our targets, the pirates, notice our warship, with its huge, steel-mounted cannon aimed right at them. On the screen, we watch them throwing their weapons and ammunition overboard. I am relived, but not completely; I won’t know until tomorrow if they are fully disarmed.
The next morning, refreshed and energized, I head to the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boats) launching deck with my boarding team. We gear up along side our comrades from The Coast Guard Maritime Expeditionary Team and our interpreter. The sun glares, hot and unwavering. The wind begins to heave, the sweeping breeze behind our backs offering relief from the heat that is only worsened by our heavy gear. I’m assigned to the first crew board. I keep my M4 down thumb on the safety and my index on the trigger.
We pull up alongside the vessel, throwing our ladder onto the deck, Petty Officer Hammacher climbs up, yelling “Stay down and Hand’s Up! Up! Up!,” while pointing the M4 at the closest pirate he sees. The rest of us quickly climb the ladder. My heart is pounding, and sweat dripping down my eyelids. There’s a stench in the air, emanating from the accumulated body odor of the men we’ve just ordered to raise their arms. They probably haven’t washed for days, and they all look thin and hungry. We tie them up and search them. The interpreter asks them why they are on a vessel that doesn’t belong to them. They say they are just fisherman using this vessel to bring home food to their families. I can hear their stomachs growling. They can’t afford an adequate fishing vessel of their own to fish in these shallow waters. They sound sincere, and I feel for their struggle to feed their families. But they aren’t telling the whole truth. At the bottom of the ship we find a few crewmembers tied up like hostages. Luckily, there aren’t any signs of physical abuse, and there are no weapons.
We take the pirates to their skiffs and give them enough bread and water to hold them on their return to the African coast. We release the fishermen and give them supplies too.
I did what I was supposed to that day. No one got hurt, and the situation was resolved peacefully. All my life I’ve wanted to be part of the military and do something for the greater good of humanity. But that day of my first boarding experience, I just saw hungry human beings who needed help to feed themselves and their families. All we could do was send them home.
Javier Chen served in the US Navy for 5 years as a Naval Shipboard Firefighter. His military service tours include the Asian Pacific theatre, Anti-Piracy operations in the Horn of Africa, and Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East. He grew up in San Gabriel Valley, California and is currently a 4th-year student veteran at UC Berkeley, majoring in Society & Environment. He is a current fellow at UC Berkeley’s Fung Institute conducting research in incorporating technology into Public Health. As President of Cal Veterans Group, he dedicates his time in providing student