Salvatore Giardina of Easton addressed parishioners at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Fairfield at the Memorial Day Mass about his experience as a sailor in the U.S. Navy during the Grenada invasion.

My name is Sal Giardina, and I am a parishioner here at Assumption, and I live in Easton with my wife, Sharon, and our two sons. I was asked to write a reflection of my experience as a sailor in the U.S. Navy and how it helped form me as the person speaking to you today. Many facets of the military had a profound effect on my life, some very overt and some subtle.  

Why I Joined

I was born in Brooklyn in 1962 to recent Italian immigrants. My father was a master carpenter and my mom was a dressmaker.  My early memories in school were making care packages for soldiers in Vietnam in 1968-72.  I was beginning to learn about the military. As we started each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the meaning of the words were starting to resonate in my mind. 

Being first generation in U.S.A. I joined the Navy as a thank you to the government for giving my parents the opportunity to have a good life. My parents taught me the value of doing a job well done. Although my parents were not happy with my decision, it was a call to duty which was burning in my heart for a long time. I always remembered the quote from President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

My Start: Navigation School

I entered bootcamp in 1981 and then afterward went straight to Quartermaster A school.  Quartermasters in the U.S. Navy are navigators. This was before any GPS was developed, so we had to rely on radar only within 40 miles off the coast and then celestial navigation.  

Sal Giardina was on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Briscoe in Grenada.

USS Briscoe DD-977

In August of 1981 I reported to Norfolk, Va. to my ship. The USS Briscoe was a modern destroyer which had General Electric gas turbine engines. She could be ready to set sail at any moment. A sleek and fast ship, which was built to be put in harm’s way to defend our nation. I felt proud to be part of the destroyer Navy. Before my arrival, the USS Briscoe won the coveted  Battenburg Cup which was awarded to the best ship or submarine for operational excellence. During the period of the award (1980-1982) our ship was allowed to paint her anchor in gold to distinguish herself in the fleet.

Nineteen years old and nervous, I was assigned to the navigation division, which had close contact with our commanding executive officer.  Our workspace was the ship’s bridge and the chartroom, located behind the bridge. Quickly, I was introduced to all other crew members (about 280) from other departments, making new friends. The crew was from all over the country, small towns, big cities, farms. It was great hearing about places where my shipmates were from. My leading petty officer was QM1 Charles Snodgrass from Kentucky.  QM1 was very patient with me and was always happy to teach me the “fleet way” of navigation. He fit the description of a “salty” sailor, in his early 30s with a salt and pepper beard. We were allowed to have facial hair back then.  

First Major Deployment

We were starting to prepare for my first international deployment to the Persian Gulf in December of 1981.  During that time, the Persian Gulf deployments were shared by the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. There were only two navy ships at one time, one supply ship and one combat ship. Our mission was to keep watch on the Iran-Iraq war going on. While underway, I started training to be a master helmsman.

After my master helmsman qualification, I was intrigued with celestial navigation. Celestial navigation has been around for thousands of years, ancient mariners relied on the sun, the moon and stars. I was eager to learn, but had some bad news. The Navy only admitted 2nd class petty officers E-5 ( equivalent to Army sergeant). I was an E-2, far away from that minimum rank required for school. Understanding the minimum rank requirements for celestial school, I decided to purchase a celestial navigation correspondence course and teach myself.

As I was writing a check for $300 (in 1981 dollars ), my supervisor walked into the chartroom and said, “Don’t waste your money on that course, I will teach you.” While in the Persian Gulf, we took celestial sights (weather permitting ) every day. In one month, I became proficient in celestial navigation and was standing “Navigator of the Watch” on my own. Most days were routine work with constant drills to sharpen our skills with anti-submarine drills, weapons and fire drills, rudder failure. We were trained for almost any type of emergency.

Every Sunday, a Navy Chaplain would arrive by helicopter from the supply ship for our Sunday services. We had a mix of all denominations. We also looked forward to mail being sent to us, no email back then, so the excitement of receiving a letter from home was on par to Christmas joy.  

GITMO and Grenada

After spending time to overhaul the ship in Mississippi, we headed for refresher training in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  GITMO is what we called the base, basically training us for a potential World Ware 3.  It was the second time I experienced tear gas training (once in boot camp and the second time in GITMO). We had GITMO instructors at every department with trainers with clipboards watching how well or bad we performed our jobs during training drills. 

Every day we went underway at 5:30 a.m. and returned at 5 p.m..and had to fix any “non satisfactory” issues by the start of the next day. Most times we were up until midnight, then wake up call for 4 a.m. This went on for six weeks. At the last week, right before our final exam, we were ordered to urgently make preparations to help with the invasion of Grenada in October of 1983. We had all our charts up to date. The Navy allowed us to call home via satellite scrambled communication. We were not allowed to say where and what we were doing.

I called my father to say, “I am going somewhere where it might be dangerous, and I wanted to say how much I love you and mom.” I had no idea what lay ahead. We immediately set sail for Grenada at Flank3, full speed ahead, so fast that our ship was shaking at times with the vibrations of the engines. At this time we were firing our guns for training, .50 cal, M-60’s. This is when it finally occurred to me that we might be seeing casualties. We were told about Cuban mercenaries and possible Soviet ground forces. 

Thinking more and more about the possible danger led me take my dashboard crucifix my grandmother gave me and tape it to the navigation chart table on the bridge. I had to apologize to Jesus for the terrible job I did with masking tape. Tthe humidity made it difficult for the masking tape to stick. I made a makeshift altar on the bridge. It gave me comfort during the entire time we had spent in Grenada. 

1984 Mediterranean Deployment

In April 1984 we were underway to the Mediterranean Sea. We always operated alone unless requested to assist in a major battle group such as Grenada. During this time in Europe there was widespread terrorism ignited by the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut in October 1983. The crew of our ship was ordered not to wear uniforms in port and to hide our military ID cards if we boarded any trains, busses, or planes, due to kidnappings. 

We were prohibited from wearing blue jeans or denim as it was a telltale sign of an American. Knowing Italian and Spanish language helped in a situation in Capri, Italy as some sailors forgot to pay their bills in restaurants and the owners were complaining. Some officers saw me on the landing boat and asked for my assistance. I was given about $1,000 in Italian lira and told to visit each restaurant which had claimed an incident and to double the bill. I went from restaurant to restaurant, gave them the money and apologized in behalf of the U.S. Navy. 

One waiter at the restaurant asked me for a favor in Italian. His request was for M&M’s for his children. I asked if he wanted plain or peanut. He said, “Can I have both?” I had radioed my ship to bring one case of plain and peanut M&M’s to this waiter. It was nice to hear the next day how his children loved the candy. My father was nine when the Allies invaded Sicily, He was one of the children who were given chocolate by U.S. soldiers. A generation later, I returned the friendly gesture.

In the Mediterranean we had encountered our nemesis, the Soviet Navy. This time we decided to take closer looks at each other. We were maneuvering and the Soviet ship was approaching us on our port side. We had video cameras going. They steamed so close to us (about 20 to 30 feet away) that I was able to see the gold shoulder insignia of the officers on their starboard bridge wing.

Sailing side by side, both ships were very tense. Any wrong move could have sparked an incident. Something inside me told me to wave a friendly hello. I waved hello, and the Soviet officer waved back. Waving to passing ships is a tradition at sea. If you fail to do it, bad luck is bestowed on you and the ship. One of the officers on my ship angrily said to me, “Why are you waving at the enemy?” My response, “We are sailors like them, to show mutual respect for each other. “

As a menswear apparel industry executive and adjunct professor of textiles at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, I apply life lessons learned in the military :

  • Attention to detail, the slightest miscalculation can cost lives.
  • Respect authority and the chain of command.
  • Respect your subordinates; treat them like family.
  • Respect life as it could be taken away in an instant.
  • Lead by example.
  • Easily adopt to change.
  • Always remain calm during emergencies.
  • Be accountable. 
  • Always lend a helping hand. 

Life on a destroyer taught me how to deal with emergencies which would happen simultaneously. I had to quickly prioritize and compartmentalize my thoughts and get to work fixing the problem(s). The life lessons learned prepared me for anything life had to throw at me. 

Sal Giardina and Matthias Lestrade met each other and learned about their interconnected military experience while speaking of their military service at the Memorial Day Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church.

I end my reflection with this statement I had seen online:

  • Armed Forces Day is for those currently in their uniforms.
  • Veterans Day is for those who hung up their uniforms.
  • Memorial Day is for those who never left their uniforms.

Something amazing happened after Mass. I was approached by a woman and her father and mother. Neisha Lestrade introduced me to her father, Matthias Lestrade, who was in the Caribbean Army ,helping U.S. Special Forces in the invasion of Grenada, known as “Operation Urgent Fury.” He was helping the U.S. Army, and I was on the water guarding the Army! We rescued American medical students at St. George Medical School.

Thirty eight years later we met at the same church. I am still in shock! Lestrade mentioned that he was urgently called to duty. So was I. We were both urgently called to duty and now reunited. What a beautiful day today. God bless you all. God bless America.

Giardina thanked Father Peter Cipriani, pastor, and members of the clergy, Fairfield town officials, the honorable judge of probate, state government officials, Knights of Columbus officials, the American Legion, veterans in attendance, and his brother Knights of Columbus.

Photo at top: Father Peter Cipriani officiates at the Memorial Day Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church, honoring veterans Sal Giardina, left, and Matthias Lestrade, far right. With them, center, is Michael Cooney, director of music.

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