Today is Veteran’s Day, and Wilton’s American Legion Post 86 will host a ceremony at the Wilton Veterans Memorial in Wilton Center (Center St. and Old Ridgefield Rd. intersection) starting at 11 a.m. In case of inclement weather, the ceremony will be held at Post 86 (112 Old Ridgefield Rd.).

Artie DiRocco has lived in Wilton for 22 years. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he enlisted in 1985, and spent four years as a sonar technician and acoustic analyst. “I hunted for submarines,” he explained.

DiRocco served as a member of the crew on the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf in 1988. He was onboard when the ship hit an Iranian mine, tearing a 15-foot hole in the hull and igniting fires on several decks. This is his story as told to GOOD Morning Wilton (edited for clarity and brevity).

I went into the Navy right out of high school, quite frankly because I didn’t have the money, nor was I mentally prepared, to go to college.

I had an English teacher in high school, Mrs. Kissel. She was a cook in the Navy — career Navy, retired and became a school teacher. She actually said to me, my senior year in high school, “You need to grow up. You need to grow up in the Navy.” And she put me in her car and drove me to the Navy recruiting station in Newark, New Jersey.

The recruiters had me take the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, which is your basic knowledge test. I finished and they said, “You could do any job you want.”

I wanted to be in combat. It sounded like a cool thing. So I sat in a conference room by myself for two hours reading index cards with job descriptions for every combat job.

I chose sonar — you’re going to laugh at this — because the card  said, “works primarily in air-conditioned spaces.” [laughs] We didn’t have air conditioning in my house, so that sounded really appealing to me. So I chose sonar so I could be in air-conditioned spaces. That’s a true story.

I went to boot camp and my ‘A School’ for sonar in San Diego. A School is school for your first-line job. I was second in my class — first time in my life I ever had any success scholastically [laughs].

Being second in my class, I pretty much got my choice of duty. The way it works is, your chief comes into the classroom, puts a stack of orders that’s available to your class on the table, you line up how you finished in the class and you go through the orders and pick one. I wanted to be on the East coast. He explained to me that we were reopening the base in Newport, Rhode Island. Newport’s close to New Jersey. I’m going to Newport.

I got assigned to the USS Samuel B. Roberts, which was still being built. I was in a pre-commissioning unit, so we spent a lot of time in Maine where they were building the ship. We commissioned the ship in 1986, [and then] spent a lot of time certifying the ship down in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Once it was certified, we got assigned to Operation Earnest Will, escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Iranians were at war with Iraq and bombing the tankers as part of their attempt at supremacy to control the Persian Gulf.

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So the U.S. reflagged the Kuwaiti tankers with U.S. flags and assigned Navy ships to escort them. We picked them up in the Indian Ocean and escorted them all the way to Kuwait.

In the Persian Gulf there were no sonars, so I was reassigned as a gunner’s mate to the 40-millimeter machine gun. That’s exactly what it sounds like. During battle stations, I manned a gun.

During one of our escorts, we dropped a tanker off in Kuwait and were heading back down to pick up another one. We wandered into a[n Iranian] minefield and went to our battle stations, unsure of what to do. Our captain decided to back out [through] our own wake since we knew that was a safe path. And upon backing out of the wake, we struck one of the mines and our ship blew up.

It put a 15-foot hole in the bottom of the ship. Shockingly nobody died. Our captain was ordered to abandon ship twice by the Commodore, but he refused. And the crew fought the flooding and the fires and saved the ship.

An Iranian mine tore a 15-foot hole in the hull of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, in 1988. The ship was saved from sinking by the bravery of its 255-person crew, one of whom was Wilton resident Artie DiRocco. (photo: Artie DiRocco)

When we were fighting the fires, I was on a fire hose. I had heard that the 76-millimeter magazine was getting hot because of the fires below it. So I went into the magazine with a bunch of other guys and we started offloading the 76-millimeter rounds, which were 50 pounds, they look like bullets. There were probably about 1,000 of them. We were in a space that was well over 100 degrees because of the fires around it.

We finished up and thought everything was under control when our captain said that in the general storeroom, one of the largest spaces on the ship, the bulkhead was sagging from the weight of the water behind it because the space next to it was flooded. He asked for four volunteers to be lowered by a harness down into the dark space with miner’s helmets on to shore up the bulkhead. I volunteered.

I did that not for any heroic reasons I just had the attitude that if somebody was going to do something that my life depended on, it might as well be me.

Could the rounds have [exploded from the heat]? We found it early enough where it wasn’t really that. It didn’t seem so hot that we were gonna cook off. Could the bulkhead have caved in? Yeah, it could have. We didn’t think there was any danger — that doesn’t mean there wasn’t.

We got towed back into Dubai. They patched up the hole, put us in a heavy lift ship and sent us back to Maine.

I was in the Navy for four years, and I achieved third-class petty officer. There’s different types of enlistments — I took the four years and done, and then I had two years of inactive reserves, which means if a war is declared, you could be called back up. My inactive reserve expired right before the Gulf War. At the end of [active duty], they can offer you packages to stay in. I was offered $30,000 and a promotion and choice of duty for two years for a six-year commitment.

When you’re in the military, it seems like there’s a lot of rules, but there’s camaraderie and it’s all good. And it’s a lot of fun to be had. It’s hard work, but you know, you have your fun and your friends and it’s okay. But when your ship blows up, it becomes real. It takes on a different life, and that wasn’t the life I wanted.

At one point I thought I wanted to be career military but decided it wasn’t for me. The military is too political for me. You have to play the political game. And I’m not a political person. I say what’s on my mind.

I’ve spent my entire life volunteering for things, that’s what I do. I want to help. From [Wilton] Football boards, taking on the [football] boosters when they were in trouble, and taking on Trackside when they were in trouble. That’s what I do, I like that.

So volunteering for things when I was on a ship to help my friends was the same thing I do now (even though ‘Navy’ stands for, ‘Never Again Volunteer Yourself’… I clearly didn’t learn that lesson).

We should spend more time recognizing the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is the day that we memorialize the soldiers and sailors and airmen who paid the ultimate price with their life. That’s what that day is for. Veterans Day is the opportunity to recognize people who volunteer to put their lives on hold so that others could enjoy their freedoms. It’s the opportunity to say thank you once a year. And I think that once a year is fine.

I do wish that veterans would be treated with more respect and with more help from the federal government than they get. I used to volunteer at the Veterans Hospital on First Avenue in Manhattan. To go in and see the forgotten veterans, homeless veterans living in the lobby of a hospital — it’s sickening. There’s a lot of veterans struggling. The VA has become so impossible to navigate that most people have given up. It’s become a bureaucratic government agency. If we can get help to people coming to this country for the first time, we should be able to get the same or better help to people who’ve defended this country. And that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Veterans’ causes, nonprofits, with no help from the federal government — that’s where people can support. There are so many agencies. Wounded Warriors Project is actually building tiny homes for homeless veterans and helping them find jobs. That’s something the VA should be doing, but it’s not the case. When you look at any charity, not just the veteran charities, do the research to see how much of your donation goes towards administrative costs. It should be under 20% and donate direct, because most of that money goes directly to help veterans. And it helps doing business with veteran-run businesses. There’s a big push in this country to deal with minority-run companies and I’m fully on board with that. But part of that should be veteran-run companies as well.

Mandatory military service — we should have it, 100%. It teaches you discipline, it teaches you national pride. These are all things we could use in this country right now.

I love that the Wilton schools have school on Veterans Day [and commemorate Veterans Day as part of the curriculum]. I love it. I think we spend too much time in this country enjoying the day off and not thinking about what the day off is for. So by having school and raising awareness, I think that’s the right move. If this was a holiday — ‘Hey we get a day off!” — I don’t think anybody would have an appreciation for the sacrifice people have made in their lives.

And it’s not, “Happy Memorial Day.”  It’s not, “Hey, let’s have a barbecue day.” It’s a day to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what ‘memorial’ means. Labor Day, have a party. The fact that Memorial Day is now known as the day that kicks off the summer season is infuriating.

We’ve kind of lost sight of that. Part of the reason is that we have fought a couple of wars in the last 20 years, but we never really called them ‘war’ except for the Persian Gulf War. But we never really as a nation were behind what we were doing 100%. World War I, World War II, we were all in as a country.

We didn’t get behind the latest [conflicts]. It’s not Vietnam War level, where soldiers were ostracized when they got home. But certainly now, people who served are forgotten.

We had our grandfathers telling us stories. It used to be, we idolized the greatest generation ever. We don’t have that now because the grandfathers are Vietnam vets, and Vietnam was a ‘dirty thing’ and we don’t want to talk about it. “We lost, no pride in losing.” Maybe it’s going to be the next generation of kids, whose grandfathers were in the Gulf War, I don’t know.

What I would say if one of my children wanted to go into the military? I would say, “It’s your decision if you want to serve your country, but if you’re going to serve your country, do it in the Navy.