Nelson Martinez, of Fort Dodge, decided to volunteer for the Navy in 1972 for the same reason many others chose the Navy or the Air Force.
“I had friends that got drafted,” he said. “Their first stop was Southeast Asia. They never made it home … two didn’t, one is in a wheelchair.”
He signed up on Nov. 11, 1972.
“It didn’t keep me out of Vietnam,” he said. “I was on a ship in Cam Ranh Bay.”
He was originally a boiler tech, then he trained to be a firefighter and a hull tech.
The ships he served on in the theater performed a wide variety of duties.
They transported foods and other goods in. Bodies were part of the load going back.
“They stayed in coolers; we took them to Hawaii,” he said.
Martinez also spent time serving on the USS Pawcatuck.
The ship served as a gas station of sorts, a really big one. It refueled other ships while at sea, both the U.S. fleet and NATO ally ships.
“In the Mediterranean, the Russians were always around trying to see how we did it,.” he said. “We carried Av Gas, which is jet fuel. It was one of the scary duties. Most of the fleet stayed away. If anything would happen … boom.”
Martinez stayed in until Nov. 11, 1982.
“I wanted to make a career of it,” he said. “I made E6 in five and a half years, most people take seven and a half.”
He decided to leave when the Navy started to allow women to serve onboard ships at sea.
“I just didn’t believe putting women on a ship that’s out for nine months with 18-year-old hormonal kids was a good idea,” he said. “Although I had a pretty good crew. I just knew nothing good would come of it.”
Martinez earned the title of Shellback and Blue Nose while he served. Those are earned by crossing the Equator and the Arctic Circle. Before the crossing, a sailor is a Pollywog.
There was a ceremony onboard to recognize the crossing.
“You had to strip down to your shorts,” he said. “Then with an oyster in your mouth you had to run 100 yards while your fellow sailors hit you with firehoses. If you spit out or lost your oyster you had to go again. I didn’t like oysters up to that point. I still don’t like oysters; it brings back that memory.”
After he left the Navy, he settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where he had a short stint working in a lumber yard.
Then it was out to eat.
He was the general manager of a Pizza Inn and ended up running three of them. Then he moved on to Las Vegas where he also worked as food and beverage manager at the Aladdin Casino.
In 1992 he moved to Buffalo, New York, where he enrolled in college to study political science.
“Why?” he said. “I don’t know. I found there was a lot of math involved.”
The next trek took him to Houston where he worked at the Hard Rock Cafe.
“I could make more money there as a waiter than in management,” he said.
He finished out his time with the restaurant business with Taco Bell. He led three Team Management Units.
In 1998, he went into driving a truck.
“I wanted to make a decent living,” he said. “In management there was a lot of racism. Most of it had to do with my last name being Martinez not Reed. In truck driving you get paid for every mile you drive.”
Life on the road also gave him some much needed solitude. It let him sort out his life.
He took loads all over the U.S. and Canada.
“I love to drive,” he said. “I’m good at it. I had 1.75 million safe miles in my tractor.”
It was during his time with Smithway Motor Xpress that he discovered that he really liked Fort Dodge. He ended up serving as the night dispatcher for the fleet there and then fate came along.
“That’s where I met my best friend, that’s where I met my wife through a fellow dispatcher,” he said.
Martinez retired from the trucking industry in 2016. He and wife Lori were living in Arkansas then. They moved to Fort Dodge in 2021. Shortly after that, he began driving school bus for the Fort Dodge Community School District.
Martinez said the Navy gave him several good values he still has today.
“Integrity was one of the things,” he said. “You had to be accountable.”
“You also have to be willing to change,” he said. “In the Navy, there’s not a day that’s routine; you always had to be creative in getting your crew ready.”
He’s had several family members join.
“I have a niece and a nephew that went into the Navy,” he said. “They saw how well I did. My daughter went into the Air Force.”
“For a young man or a woman that doesn’t have an idea of what they want to do, any branch of the military will give them good direction,” he said. “After that, go on to college.”