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Ashe County Veterans History Project: Rick Cornejo

Rick Cornejo's Photos

Representing the DAV at Ashe County Courthouse for the National Day of Prayer

Rick on board USS Milwaukee AOR2—Fleet Week in New York, NY, 1978

 Rick at Naval Reserve Center—Gadsden, Alabama, as instructor in 1982

Rick at Naval Air Station Belle Chase in New Orleans, 1992

Rick and his nieces on board the USS Alabama BB60 in 1994 for his retirement

Pastor Rick and Loretta Cornejo at Mt. Paran Baptist Church, 2018

Rick with his wife Loretta in 2019

Family reunion photo in 2010

L to R: Beverly, Rick, Mack, Loretta, and Ramona

Rick with his daughters (2016)

Ramona Hamby on his right and Beverly Strugill on his left

Rick Cornejo's Story

(Editor's Note: What follows are annotated excerpts from Suzanne Moore's interview with Rick Cornejo. Mr. Cornejo's recollections are provided in quotations.)


Rick Cornejo was born in July 1954 in Corona, CA, right outside of Los Angeles. His father, Charles Cowan, had served in the Marines during WWII and was from Cowan, TN, a little town between Chattanooga and Nashville.  His mom, Betty Burkett, was originally from Watauga County, NC, and met his father through her brother, who was in the Navy during WWII. They moved to California in the 1950s to find work, and both ended up working for Owens Illinois Glass, a company that made Coca Cola bottles.  His parents divorced when he was young and his mom remarried to Jay Cornejo.  Rick refers to his stepdad as "Dad" and took his name, Cornejo, since that was who raised him.  Jay was also a veteran who served in the Navy during WWII.

Rick has two younger sisters, Marsha Greene and Carrie Mitchell.  When he was about six, his family moved from Los Angeles to a little farming community right outside of San Francisco called Tracy. This is where Rick lived until he was 16 years old.  

His dad worked as a mechanic during the day and as a bartender at night.  As a mechanic he worked at the Braceros Camps, where migrant farm workers lived and worked in the San Joaquin Valley.  They grew a lot of tomatoes and sugar beets there, and whenever school was on vacation Rick would go with his dad to help. 

In 1970, the family moved back to Boone, NC, and Rick attended Watauga High School.  He had a job working as a cook at the cafeteria for Roses department store in Watauga Village.  In high school when military recruiters came to visit, Rick and his friend Calvin Cole decided to sign up on the buddy plan in March 1972.  This was a delayed entry program where they could officially enlist after graduating from high school.  At the time he had to get his parents to sign permission for him since he was only seventeen years old and America was still involved in the Vietnam conflict.

"Since both my stepdad and biological dad were in during WWII, I felt a connection with the veterans in my family. I’d always wanted to go in the service, I was raised to do that.  But my grandmother was a bit apprehensive.  She was convinced that mom was signing my death warrant."

After graduating from high school Rick and Calvin went to Raleigh, where the governor swore them in along with Navy recruits from across the state.  The state gave their company a North Carolina flag to carry while in Orlando, FL, for boot camp.  After boot camp they separated: Calvin going to Wake Island in the Pacific and Rick to Jacksonville, FL.  Luckily neither had to go to Vietnam.  Though they had trained to go, the war was over by the time they graduated from boot camp.  Years later, Rick and Calvin connected again when each was transferred from different duty stations to Norfolk, VA.

"I always felt guilty about not seeing combat, because if you don't go during war, you kind of feel like, 'What was the purpose of being in the service.'  But then by the same token, we did an awful lot of operations.  We supported the war, even though we weren't there.  And my grandma’s attitude completely changed since I wasn’t in direct danger.  I was her pride and joy because I was in the service."

Rick spent 22 years in service and jokes that “You join the Navy to see the world, but what they forget to tell you is that two-thirds of the world is water.”  During his time in the service, Rick visited over 55 countries.  His favorite place was Ireland, because that is where his ancestors are from. Singapore also was at the top of the list, because it was the cleanest place of all the ports they visited.

Memories of Boot Camp

"The best part of boot camp was graduation day, because that meant it’s over and done with!  We flew from Raleigh to Orlando and got to the barracks about 8:00 p.m.  But it was about 1:00 a.m. before we got to bed with all the stuff they put us through.  I remember waking up at 4:30 a.m. when a guy walked in with a metal trash can and a glass coke bottle. He was ringing the inside of the trash can with that coke bottle.  Then he slung the trash can to one side of the room and [shouted] 'Everybody's awake now.’  Going through the gas chamber was another vivid memory.  When you take the gas mask off, you know what tear gas actually feels like. That would really choke you, and that's one of the reasons a lot of guys qualified for at least a minimal 10% disability. Going through the gas chamber will cause some respiratory distress." 

"There aren’t any instructors that stand out. At that time, I probably didn't care for my drill sergeants, but I later realized that they were looking out for us, trying to show us things. It’s like your parents when you're growing up.  They tell you things to help keep you from getting hurt. You just don't want to hear it. And it's the same thing. You [think you] know more than they do. Of course you don't because they've already been right."

Shore Duty Assignment

"Part of my specialized training included defensive driving school and being qualified to drive anything that the Navy had.  I learned to travel safely with bombs, missiles, or whatever.  One of the first assignments was to be driver for Admiral Jeremiah Denton. Admiral Denton spent 7 ½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and he had a lot of people calling him for guest speaking engagements.  One thing about chauffeuring him was temperature control in the vehicle.  The air conditioner was either on or off and wasn’t adjustable, so when the Admiral was cold we’d turn it off.  We were in a black sedan, in Norfolk, during the summertime and it was pretty hot.  During his time as a POW, Admiral Denton was always cold; and now that he was back home, he refused to be cold.  Finally, we got a car from the motor pool that had climate control so he could be comfortable.  Admiral Denton wrote a book called “When Hell Was in Session.” He told me a lot of stories that didn’t make the book.  One thing Admiral Denton became known for is blinking the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code when he was videotaped by his captors for a propaganda interview."

PTSD

"Veterans didn’t know what to think during the end of Vietnam because it was unpopular and there was so much controversy. I don't think they were ready for what they got.  In WWII the guys came back to parades and fanfare.  Most of them, not all but most, came back and went right back to doing what they were doing before service.  They just wanted to put it all behind them." 

"But because we watched the Vietnam War on television, when the Vietnam vets came back there were a lot of attitudes against them because they went.  Basically you sign a contract and do what you're told to do.  Vietnam vets struggled a lot.  It's kind of like the Charlie Daniels song 'Still in Saigon.' ('My younger brother calls me a killer and my daddy calls me a vet').  It was hard to connect with friends who weren’t in the service, since some of them were actually protesters. You had to be cautious with having conversations about different topics because you know right off if they had a different viewpoint than you might have had."

"During the Iraq [and] Afghanistan thing, veterans kind of sat up and said, 'No, you're not gonna do this again. We're not gonna allow you to send these guys over there for this, and then bring them back here to just kick them to the curb.'  So today the VA does an awesome job in helping people with PTSD."

Making the best of hard times

"It was hard being away from family, especially during holidays.  During my first four years I was only home for Thanksgiving once.  Usually I was in the Mediterranean or the North Atlantic.  But if you think of the best part of the service, and most veterans will say this is why they reenlist, it is the camaraderie, a new family. You get into the mode of 'I can trust you and you trust me,' because we gotta have each other’s back. We have to know that when we go into combat, 'I don't need to look where you are because I know where you are.'  This is one of the reasons it's hard, and that's why the Navy started doing transitional classes for guys or girls who did their time.  You might expect when you go home for everything to be the same. Well, of course everything has changed because time changes.  And when you get back to the civilian world there is a different concept in the job market. It's more of, you know, 'I'm looking out for me.'"

"When I started moving up the ranks and made Petty Officer, part of my job was to help nurture my junior people, to bring them up the rank. The better I did that, the more it helped other aspects of my job."

"I remember the first time I was on Tattnall, which was my first ship. It was a guided missile destroyer up in Jacksonville.  I remember the first time we left on a cruise down the Caribbean to spend four weeks playing games with another ship.  The hardest thing I did was leave home to go on that cruise.  Well, after that, I got to realize when I'm going to sea, it’s just really going from one home to another. That made it a little easier."

Russia

"Probably the biggest memory that stands out is we got to go to Leningrad, Russia.  In 1975 Russia and the United States decided they were going to send two ships from each country to the other country.  So there were two Russian ships that went to Boston, and we went to Leningrad with the USS Leahy.   What amazed me, was we were always told these are the bad guys.  But when we got there I thought, 'No, they’re like us, they're just trying to get by and do what needs to be done and raise their family.'"

"We were there for seven days and made the front page news. The Russian Navy had a fence to keep the people from actually coming in without authority.  There were fans at the pier, as far back up into the city as you could see. People lined up waiting to just get a glimpse of us or to talk to us, to ask us questions!  It was the first time any Russian or any American ships had done that."

"On this trip I had my first taste of caviar.  It is too salty and kind of gritty.  But, being in Russia was a lot of fun because the time we were there they gave us all kinds of tours. They have a huge Art Museum in Saint Petersburg called the State Hermitage. The facilities were really nice, and on one hallway an artist had traveled to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, sketched it, and then came back and painted a mural of this all down the hall."

"The great part about service, mostly, is that you do get to meet different cultures, even in the United States. We were from everywhere, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia. It a was conglomeration.   Another memorable place I went was Machu Picchu where we saw the Inca ruins.  These places and things, I would have never seen or never been able to go to without being part of the Navy."

Man Overboard!

"One time while in the North Atlantic we were expecting a storm, so they sent us up on deck to make sure everything was secure. There was a kid doing some maintenance to a fire station on the main deck, and he had left the brass nozzle laying on the deck. I couldn't see it in the dark, so I tripped over the nozzle and hit the lifeline. Which would have been fine, but he had been doing maintenance on the lifeline at the same time and he had used seasoning wire.  This is basically just a little bit bigger than thread to hold it together until he could come back up the next day to finish the job.  Anyway, when I hit it, that seasoning wire just broke, and I went over.  So then I'm in the water and the first thing I did was shed my pea coat.  Being wet, that coat was like 600 pounds of dead weight.  Thankfully, when I went over, I hollered loud enough that they heard me, but the ship still had to go out so far before they could turn to come back to get me.  If the ship turns immediately, you get sucked under and go through the screws. I’ll just say, when you're in the water floating, and you watch your home going towards the horizon, that's not a good feeling!"

"The actual rescue was like a comedy of the ‘Keystone Cops’ during the Navy.  There were some kapok heaving lines (rope tied with pieces of old orange WWII kapok life vests) and what you're supposed to do is throw it to whoever is in the water and even if they don't catch it, it'll float.  Then they can come to it and they pull you back to the ship.  Well, they threw it and once I got it, the next thing I know, the other end went flying over my head!?!  I wondered, 'Am I supposed to play Roy Rogers and lasso my way back on board?'  Then they went to cut loose the debarkation nets on the side.  That's so people can drop down to the water and go up and down the net to get into the boat. Or if you're in the water you can climb up.  Well they forgot to tie the other end of the net to the ship, so it just fell in the water. Finally, a guy in engineering, not supposed to know anything about being on deck, walks up, grabs an inch and a half firehose, and drops it into the water. Well, it floated out to me, and I grabbed a hold of it while a couple guys pulled me back up. That was an experience. Not one that I’d recommend. I mean it's funny now, but I was in the water for 20-25 minutes and hypothermia was starting to set in.  I refused to tell my mother about it until just a few years ago, because I know had she had known about it she would really have worried."

Reflections

"Nobody hates war more than a military person, because we pay with the ultimate sacrifice. For some reason, people who don't serve seem to think that we enjoy it. Well to this day I believe this is the greatest country that's ever existed. The U.S. has problems, absolutely.  However, I've been to 55 different countries. I was just talking to a friend of mine who had served in 16 different countries.  I asked him, 'Is there any one of those countries where you would go to live?'  He said no, not even with hesitation. The United States is home and there's nothing more beautiful in this world, then being gone for several months and coming back to see the red, white, and blue flying over your port to welcome you home. She's wonderful. She's worth fighting for.  If you have problems, burning things down or tearing things down . . . even as a kid that bothered me.  It reminds me of Merle Haggard’s song 'The Fightin’ Side of Me.' I used to walk to school with my transistor radio and I would love it when that song came on."

"One other thing I want to say is that people often confuse Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  Veterans Days is for the living and Memorial Day is for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. We like being thanked once in a while, but not on Memorial Day. I think the biggest thing people need to realize is that veterans are just people like everybody else.  We didn't join the service to be heroes. We joined because we felt it was the right thing to do to serve our country. Ron Reagan once said that sometimes people go through their lives wondering if they ever made a difference, but the veteran doesn't have to do that."

Following his time in the Navy, Rick attended Andersonville Theological Seminary.  He serves as pastor for Mt Paran Baptist Church in Deep Gap, NC (since 2006).  His wife’s name is Loretta and he has two stepdaughters; Ramona Hamby, and Beverly Sturgill and a son-in-law Rodney Sturgill, and a grandson, Mack Hamby.

Rick has served as Commander of the Ashe County DAV (Disabled Veterans of America) for the last four years. 

The DAV's mission is "empowering veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity. We accomplish this by ensuring that veterans and their families can access the full range of benefits available to them; fighting for the interests of America’s injured heroes on Capitol Hill; and educating the public about the great sacrifices and needs of veterans transitioning back to civilian life." For more information, visit www.dav.org