High Marks Let Marine Write Own Ticket

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Thirty-seven years of civilian life haven't fundamentally changed Robert Peña. He still defines himself as a Marine.

"Anybody that knows that I'm a Marine, the first thing they say to me is ‘semper fidelis,'" said Peña, a Payson resident since 1998.

Semper fidelis, the Marine motto, means forever faithful, and it speaks of a tradition that Peña has never forgotten.

It began in 1962, when, as an eager 17-year-old, Peña enlisted in the Marine Corps. He had come from a military family. His father served in the Air Force, and two of his brothers had military careers.

"I was in the 10th grade, and I was already studying algebra, trigonometry, and calculus," he recalled. When military recruiters came to town, Peña chose to leave school and join the Marines.

That meant leaving small-town Pecos, Texas, for Marine boot camp.

Boot camp brought new challenges to Roberto Peña. Not only was his first name shortened to Robert, but he was met with a type of people he'd never known before: military drill sergeants.

"One [staff sergeant] was Irish, and he was a karate expert," said Peña with a laugh, adding, "I guess that's how I learned how to be a good Marine. They do a very tough boot camp, to teach you stronger fighting."

Despite the challenges of this new world, Peña kept on top of everything, including his grades. "I got the highest grade in electrical training school. I just had a GED, because I only went through the 10th grade. They trained me in everything about generators, motors, wiring, of all types and gave me an extra stripe and the best transfer list," said Peña. The transfer list was a big deal for the trainees.

"After you passed your school," he explained, "the guy with the highest grade can pick anywhere he wanted to go. I went to Norfolk, over there by Virginia Beach."

Why Norfolk? "I heard that was one of the best," said Peña with a grin.

At 19, Peña, a trained Marine electrician, was sent to Okinawa. He spent several months there before returning to the states. Back at Camp Pendleton, Peña met with a dilemma.

A friend of his had recently married and was being transferred. "He'd been married just a few months, and he didn't want to go, so he asked if I could help him," Peña explained.

Would Peña take his place and go to Vietnam? Peña and his friend went to a first sergeant, who approved the request.

"I volunteered ... because I wanted to help," Peña said.

In Vietnam, Peña was sent to Chu Lai as a member of a team of 13 electricians. Their mission was to wire the Marine base there, in six months time.

"We worked six days a week, 14 hours, from early in the morning to seven, eight in the evening. We were just in a hurry," recalled Peña, looking as if he might break into a sweat thinking of it. "A lot of the men I worked with were some of the people I went to school with. They were also my age. When we had to work extra hours, they didn't want to at first. I said, ‘Well, that's fine. I can't force you to work extra hours, I'll just work myself.' But when I was still working, most of them would stay to work with me," he said.

Peña wasn't always the leader of the team of electricians. He remembered how he started out working under a staff sergeant. "I had a staff sergeant in charge and we started wiring one office. There was a wrong mark on the diagrams, and this switch for the lights in one room was in the next room. I told him, ‘That's not correct. The drafter probably did the wrong thing.' But he still put all the switches inside this first room. The captain came in and told me to go in the next room, because he wanted to know what we were arguing about. Ten minutes later, he came out and told me, ‘Well, you were correct, and I'm going to put you in charge. Your staff sergeant's going to be in charge of supplies, because you were doing the right thing.' So that's how I came to be in charge at 20 years old," said Peña with a wide grin.

Wiring the base was no easy task for the young Marines. "All the time there was mortars, and bombs, and firing, close to the base that I was wiring, because the war was all around us," said Peña.

The boys couldn't even let up guard during mess hall.

"One time one of my workers got his metal eating plate and had it hanging on his back with a wire. A sniper shot it off his shoulder, and from that day on -- because there were a lot of snipers close to our base -- we started carrying our rifles ... inside the base," Peña said.

Peña, now a part-time maintenance worker for the Payson Parks and Recreation Department, left the Marine Corps in 1966 with an honorable discharge and several medals to his name, including the Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon and a Vietnam Service Medal with three stars, signifying his three tours of active duty.

It was duty that brought men together in a lifelong bond.

Even today, so long after the war, Peña's closest friends are either the fathers or brothers of Marines, or Marines themselves.

"All our life, it's like we were always Marines," Peña said.

"Patriotism is exactly what Marines are. Marines protect each other, in the war, on the base, off the base. We're like brothers."

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