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7 Sailors Emerged From Diverse Backgrounds to Pursue a Common Cause

U.S. Navy, via Associated Press

U.S. Navy, via Associated Press

The seven sailors who died when the destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a container ship last weekend were a snapshot of the nation they served: an immigrant from the Philippines whose father served in the Navy before him; a poor teenager whose Guatemalan family came north eager for opportunity; a native of Vietnam hoping to help his family; a firefighter’s son from a rural crossroads in the rolling green fields of Virginia.

The roll call of the dead also illustrated the degree to which the military relies on recruits from immigrant communities around the country.

The Navy is still investigating what caused the near sinking of the 505foot destroyer, which collided with a container ship early Saturday morning in the waters off Japan, flooding two berths full of bunks, as well as other rooms.

The destroyer’s windowless living quarters, where bunks are stacked three high, represented unlimited possibility for Sonar Technician Third Class Ngoc T. Truong Huynh. It was only after the sailor joined the Navy, his sister said, that he started smiling more often.

“He was going out on so many adventures with his fellow sailors, and we at home missed him,” said the sister, Lan Huynh. But, she added, her family was “so happy that he was finally happy.”

“He found his purpose and he loved every minute of it,” she said.

Seaman Huynh, who went by Tan, was born in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1992, and immigrated with his mother to the United States in 1994, looking for a better life, said Ms. Huynh. But his mother struggled to find her economic footing here, and his childhood was difficult and unsettled, with the family moving often. As the oldest of four siblings, he felt the tug of responsibility.

By 2014, Seaman Huynh, who his sister said became a citizen in 2009, was yearning to find adventure and a way to provide for his family, she said. So he enlisted in the Navy and was soon assigned to the destroyer that traveled to ports in Australia, Japan and Korea.

Mr. Huynh turned 25 on Friday, shortly before the collision that cost him his life.

“Wishing him a happy birthday,” Ms. Huynh said, “was the last thing we said to him.”

In recent years, the military has tried to draw in immigrants with programs that allow enlistees to become citizens after basic training, attracting about 5,000 takers each year, according to the Defense Department. One out of every 13 sailors is foreign born, the highest proportion in any military branch, according to the Navy. The service regularly holds citizenship ceremonies aboard ships.

At the same time, the proportion of racial and ethnic minorities in the military, mirroring the nation as a whole, has surged to 40 percent — nearly twice what it was 20 years ago.

Former sailors from the destroyer said the diverse ranks shared a common cause.

“You are crammed in with all sorts of cultures on the ship,” said Corey Bell, 23, of Wynne, Ark., who served on the destroyer with six of the sailors who died. “But when you are on the Fitzgerald, you’re family. There was no racism or nothing.”

The relatives of Gunner’s Mate Second Class Noe Hernandez of Weslaco, Tex., whose family immigrated from Central America, followed his Navy travels around the world from their small town in the southern tip of Texas. Seaman Hernandez, 26, was stationed first in Italy, then in California, then in Japan.

“We just felt so proud that one of our own was living this life,” his cousin Aly Hernandez-Singer said. She added, “To me, he represents — I’ll be honest, I have to say it — what Trump says we are not. He represents the good side of the Latino community. He was a proud American. He was a good citizen, and he was Latino and proud of his roots.”

Monday was supposed to be the birthday celebration for the brother of Fire Controlman Second Class Carlos Sibayan, 23. Instead, his mother, Carmen, said she was preparing for a Mass at her home in Chula Vista, outside San Diego.

Ms. Sibayan said that her son was born in the Philippines and that the family left when he was 4 to join his father, who served in the United States military. Friends describe Seaman Sibayan as an outgoing sailor who regularly dominated informal tournaments of the video game Super Smash Bros. that were held on the destroyer.

“He helps people,” she said. “He loves to help everybody. He’s a very good kid. He’s a good big brother.”

Ms. Sibayan said that even though her son was a citizen, she had seen postings on Facebook denigrating him and his death.

“My son died because he was protecting their ass,” Ms. Sibayan said. “People are saying he is a Filipino, that he’s not a hero. Things like that. I hate it. I hate it. I have to stop looking at Facebook. They need to stop posting things that are not right.”

Ryan Canate said he attended third grade with Mr. Sibayan on a military base in Japan, and reconnected with his old friend on Facebook about five years ago.

“Even back then he was very sure he wanted to be in the Navy and serve our country,” Mr. Canate said. “As military brats, we are taught at an early age that our parents are deployed and something can happen to them,” he said. “But to learn that happened to him? He was 23 years old.”

Yeoman Third Class Shingo Douglass, 25, of Oceanside, Calif., was the son of an American Marine father and a Japanese mother. Like many on the destroyer, he liked to listen to metal songs and play video games during his downtime.

While serving as a boatswain’s mate with Mr. Bell, he painted vast portions of the now crippled destroyer, and at first, he said, they were merely bound by shared drudgery. “The day we became friends, we pulled into port in Japan and I heard him talking on his cellphone in Japanese,” Mr. Bell said. “After that he kind of became our tour guide.”

Seaman Douglass would translate kanji and take friends to hole-in-the-wall concert venues where they could see their favorite American metal bands touring Japan.

“He was a stand-up guy, a hard worker and a great friend,” Mr. Bell said.

Also killed were Gary Rehm Jr., 37, of Elyria, Ohio, who followed in the footsteps of his World War II veteran grandfather by joining the Navy, and was just months from retirement, and Dakota Rigsby, 19, of Palmyra, Va., who before joining the Navy volunteered for his local fire department alongside his mother.

Personnel Specialist First Class Xavier Martin, 24, of Halethorpe, Md., whom friends described as kind and mature for his age, also had an international heritage. He was the son of a black father from Detroit and a white mother from France, according to his friend Cristina Dunstan.

“He was raised by his father, who was his best friend,” she said. “They talked almost every day on the phone.”

Seaman Martin emulated his father in everything he did, including exercising daily and joining the Navy, she said. He loved working on cars, and was constantly souping up his Mazda. Whenever he made a new modification, he would call his father to share, she said.

Ms. Dunstan began to cry as she described the moment Mr. Martin’s father realized he had missed a call from his son minutes before the deadly crash.

On Monday, she said his father, Darrold Martin, was surrounded by family and deeply sad.

“It’s very hard,” Mr. Martin told a Baltimore television station shortly after learning of his son’s death. “He’s my only child, he’s all I have.”

Read more: www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/us/seven-sailors-uss-fitzgerald.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

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