Johnathan Palomares and Nathan Rodrigues had just completed a virtual reality mission that sent them into hostile territory to extract a Navy special operations team under heavy enemy fire.
Each of them piloted a small craft in a river surrounded by trees and terrain perfect for hiding snipers. The virtual reality headsets effectively erased the outside world while the voices of their commanders echoed in their heads over the radio. The audio was real, adapted from another mission with similar objectives.
Objects in the river and various tributaries made the going difficult.
Afterward, both students said they enjoyed the experience, which was part of a March 18 presentation at Sanger High by a team of specialists from the Navy. The crew brought two specially outfitted semi trailers that each expanded to the size of a small double-wide mobile home. One was named for the Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (Chester W. Nimitz was a fleet admiral who died in 1966), and the other was named the Burke, after a another admiral, Arleigh Burke. A Burke-class destroyer is among the largest built in the United States.
Hundreds of students participated over two days before the crew and trailers headed to Texas for another assignment.
“It was really cool,” Palomares said. “The graphics are really good.”
Way better than the standard video game.
Rodrigues said he liked how the experience felt. “So real,” he said. “Like you’re in there and how you have to focus on everything going on. If you make one wrong move, everything can go horrible for your team.”
Chief Petty Officer Rusty Newburry, who is stationed in Clovis, said the visit was part of recruiting push the Navy’s doing. He said many of the students don’t know that they’re eligible for substantial education benefits if they enlist. “A lot of kids walk away from college with $130,000 in debt,” he said. “I have a bachelors and zero debt.”
At Navy.com, it says, “In fact, much of your on-the-job training and experience can directly translate to college credit … as you get paid to work toward your degree while serving your country.”
Newburry talked to a lot of students that day. He trained as a gas systems turbine mechanical engineer. “I work on jet engines,” he said. Then he pointed to one of the massive ships represented on the mural of one of the trailers. A massive white No. 69 was painted on the bow. “That’s a cruiser,” he said. “We actually have jet engines that push that thing through the water.”
Rodrigues said he is seriously considering the Navy as an option after graduation. He and Palomares were freshmen, both 14. But both thought seriously about their future that morning.
“The only downside I see (to the Navy) is it’s really dangerous,” Rodrigues said. “But isn’t everything?”
Newburry encouraged me to go through the experience. It includes a mission preparation, the mission and a debrief, all in separate locations. About 60 students can go through the virtual reality experience in an hour. For the mission, they wear a headset and vibrating backpack. The equipment is more sophisticated than that in a new virtual reality game arcade meant for adults that just opened in the Los Angeles warehouse district.
The mission room has multiple VR stations on each wall.
My experience reminded me of the afternoon I spent with my uncle Dave Wakefield when he was on leave after his first or second tour of Vietnam. It was the 1960s. My parents were still married. We lived in the north end Seattle suburbs in a three-bedroom ranch.
Dave wore his dress blues and his white Navy hat. He gave it to me after he left the service some years later. But the story he told was just like that mission.
“The worst part is night patrol,” he said. Dave served aboard an ATF, which was an ocean-going tug. His was part of what some called the “Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.”
I called Dave, who’s now 72 and in terrible health after nearly dying last year and being in a coma for about three months. I wanted to confirm my memory. “Mike,” he said in that voice that reminded me of back then. “That was a really long time ago.”
But he confirmed what I remembered. Then he added this detail. “The Army would bomb the sloughs as we patrolled,” he said. The water and shore exploded as they slowly traveled through the jungle in the ribbon of murky water.
Dave told me way back in the ‘60s he hated being the bow gunner. “Did you kill anybody?” I asked. “How the heck should I know,” he said back then. Back when he was still way bigger than me but still scrawny.
But Dave fired that big gun. A lot. He said they lit the boat up like a Christmas tree. “Why?” I asked.
“Because the Viet Cong would swim up and try to put bombs on our ship,” he said.
“They wanted to blow us up,” he said.
I was an irritating kid. Dave was my favorite uncle. My mom’s brother. The only one of the family who accepted my father, the Hungarian refugee who had killed a bunch of Russians during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. My dad was a Jew, a kid who survived because he hid from the Nazis during World War II. He became a citizen in 1985 and never bought anything unless it was “made in the U.S.”
When I called Dave — he still lives in Alaska where we’re from — he talked about one particular night. He told it like the anecdote was a joke. Like he wasn’t scared. He mentioned something about going to Da Nang afterward. It was night. He said everybody was acting stupid. “Oh my God, we’re going to be attacked,” he said, quoting one of his fellow sailors. “Everybody’s got to get their guns.”
He wouldn’t elaborate. We turned back into our old roles. I was the punk nephew.
But I know he hated night missions. They went slow up those sloughs, trying to keep the engines as quiet as possible and the wake low. Their being lit up with strings of lights on that little tug meant they were prime targets. They couldn’t see into the darkness. And they only knew where a shooter was when the bullets came. They pointed their guns at the source and rattled off round after round.
Dave also told me once when they were in the Gulf of Tonkin “playing tag with the Russians and trying to jam their jammers,” his captain told Dave to quietly unmoor the vessel from the dock they had just pulled up to. The captain, or superior officer, had a bad feeling. “We got maybe 35 feet away and the dock exploded,” Dave said. This was way back when we were talking and I was a kid bouncing around him on the green couch. “Viet Cong.” I remember hating the Viet Cong.
Jamming the jammers referred to the radio interference the Russians were doing with our pilots.
Dave loved his years in the service. He served a couple tours and used the GI Bill to pay for his education. He saved all his Navy money and bought the coolest MGB GT and a house in Port Lions, where my grandfather owned the crab processing plant. Dave ran the plant.
Other students said they enjoyed the VR experience. “It went by too fast,” Jordyn Harbert, 14, said. The best part? “That I got to drive the ship and extract Navy Seals.”
But Harbert was uncertain if the Navy could be a career path.
Over the two days, between 800 to 1,000 students got to experience the 360-degree VR experience, one that put them right in the thick of a battle, one that meant bringing their fellow sailors out of danger.
And serving their country. Like so many before them.