As he looked forward to last month’s 82nd Airborne Division reunion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, retired 1st Sgt. Angel Valencia said his buddies were telling him to get ready for some all-night celebrating and no-telling-what-all former paratrooper carousing.
“They were saying, ‘Yeah, man, I’m so glad you’re coming. We’re gonna get some kegs; we’re gonna party all night long, like we used to ...
“I said, ‘Dude, come on, we’re going to be putting on our CPAP (night-time breathing machine) and laying down at 10 o’clock — I know I am. Those days are long gone. I’m not 22 anymore.”
Valencia, a member of the elite Sgt. Audie Murphy Club who now serves as a local church pastor, may not be staying up all night anymore, jumping out of airplanes or humping through pitch-black jungles in nighttime training missions, but the 65-year-old father of two and grandfather of three from Copperas Cove remembers those old days fondly, and never gets tired of talking about them.
“Oh, yeah, the 82nd Airborne has an awesome reputation, and I’ll always be proud of that. I always wanted to be the best.”
Valencia grew up in Santa Barbara, California, the oldest of nine children raised by a single mother. He dropped out of high school when he was 16 to help support the family and quickly climbed the ladder in the local restaurant business, making it up to manager after one year. Unfortunately, he also was pretty good at getting into trouble with the law — some minor issues, and some more serious.
“I was doing things that I shouldn’t have been doing; thinking that I could get away with anything I wanted to do. The last time, it was for carrying a concealed weapon — not a gun, but a brass knuckles-type knife I had on me,” Valencia said. “I went to court and the judge remembered seeing me before, and knew I’d been in trouble, so he gave me the option of going to the military, or go to jail.
“Back in those days, that’s what they did. There wasn’t much to think about. I didn’t want to go to jail.”
Two weeks later, in December 1973, he enlisted at age 19. Four months after that, he was on his way to boot camp, still a tough, cocky teenager. It was a bit of a rude awakening when the bus arrived at its destination, but Valencia says he was up to the challenge.
“We were a bunch of young kids who all we knew about the military was what we saw on TV,” he remembered. “We’re all shooting craps and gambling on the bus, acting like we were big-time soldiers. Then when we got to Fort Ord, it was a shock.
“They started yelling at us, and screaming at us, getting us off the bus. It was late at night, and they gave us whatever basic stuff we needed, and we went to bed.
“At 4:30 in the morning, the drill sergeant came through with a trash can top — just like you see on TV — beating it and waking us up. Then we started in-processing, getting our hair cut, going to different classes, getting our uniforms. It was kind of fun, really. I kind of liked that discipline, that sense of order. A lot of people didn’t like it, but I liked it right off the bat. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.”
After basic and advanced infantry training, it was off to jump school and Fort Bragg, where Valencia spent a remarkable 11 years in the famed 82nd Airborne, a fierce unit regarded as the best-trained light infantry division in the world, specializing in parachute assault operations, and tasked to “respond to crisis contingencies anywhere in the world within 18 hours.”
He remembers particularly well the many jungle training missions in Panama, which were probably the toughest of many challenges faced by the young sergeant and his troops.
“I went to jungle school, like, five times,” Valencia said. “That’s tough training, because it’s just a tough environment. Black palm, wild animals, moving at night … even the guys who were stationed in Panama thought we were a little crazy for moving at night in the jungle.
“You’re walking at night, holding on to each other’s gear; you’ve got zero visibility, because of the triple canopy. There’s no moonlight, no nothing, coming in. It’s like walking with your eyes closed, so you’re holding on to each other and all of a sudden, the guy in front of you just — he’s gone, off a 10- to 15-foot cliff.”
Then, in October 1983 came a call to mount up, and this time it was more than a training assignment. There had been a truck bombing at a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut that killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers.
“That’s where we thought we were headed,” Valencia said. “But we went to Grenada, instead.”
Along with Ranger battalions, Marines, Delta Force and Navy SEALS, the 82nd quickly overwhelmed the enemy forces in a battle that lasted only a few days.
“It wasn’t a long battle. The Rangers jumped in, and then we were going to jump in behind them, but by the time we got there, they said, no, the Rangers have secured the air strip, so we’re going to land — which was kind of disappointing, because I wanted a combat jump.
“It didn’t last long, but we did get into some firefights. Something like that, you’re not really scared, or nervous … pretty much focused, I guess you’d say. You’ve trained and prepared for it. We knew this was the real deal, and so we just got very serious and very focused. I told my guys, ‘We’re just going to do like we trained, and we’ll be fine.’ And we were.”
He was awarded a Bronze Star for the Grenada mission, and went on to become a drill sergeant at Fort Dix, New Jersey, then an instructor at the NCO Academy at Fort Hood, then moved to operations NCO at III Corps headquarters, before retiring after a little over 20 years’ service.
“My goal was to become a command sergeant major back in the 82nd Airborne, but when I called my infantry branch, they told me that I’d never see Fort Bragg again. They said I was a mechanized guy now, and there’s more need for mechanized guys with my rank than there is at Fort Bragg. Which I understood, because there’s only nine infantry battalions at Fort Bragg, so there’s only nine sergeants major.
“So I said, well, if that’s not going to happen, I’ll just retire. It was time to get out and pursue a civilian career.”