Soldier Stories: ‘If I can save 100 Marines or 100 Army guys’

This column presents soldier stories to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney


As long as there are enemies of freedom, who spawn aggressive violence, there will be a need for fighting troops. Our United States Armed Forces preserve and protect what we hold most dear, because once liberty is lost, it’s hard to recover. If it were a peaceful world, Navy Aviation Ordnanceman Second Class (AO2) Anthony Ugolini would be in another line of work. But for now, we need him to do this job.

You or I might walk into a multi-storied building or designer store to a job and nestle into a comfy cube or be surrounded by displays of alluring consumer products. Ugolini walks down to the 5th deck of a massive floating warship — home to 5,000 sailors doing very unique and diversified jobs. He nestles into a huge magazine full of munitions, surrounded by mega-tons of fire-power, where only the “qualified” can enter.

The road to the 5th deck started six years after high school when his girlfriend (now his wife) said, “Why don’t you talk to my recruiter and see what they can do?” There was something that excited Ugolini when the recruiter talked about handling bombs, missiles, M -16’s, 50-caliber weapons and other artillery. Prior to the military, Anthony remembers, “The coolest thing was going with a buddy to a gun range and handling a weapon there.” Favorable test scores landed him in Pensacola, Fla., in job training for Aviation Ordnance (AO). He graduated #1 in his class, which paved the way to a West Coast command, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN76), homeported in San Diego, near his hometown of Los Angeles.

A Nimitz class carrier, like the USS Reagan, is a floating air base, its mission to project air power worldwide without depending on a landlocked base from which to stage combat operations. Ugolini works in Weapons (G) Department, one of many departments onboard the ship which alone has five distinct divisions within it.

Ugolini is a beginning link in the chain of munitions flow. “I’m in G-3 (division) – they are bomb builders. We break out bombs, and build them up for a specific type of mission for whatever they need to do. We send them up to the (G-1) AO’s on the flight deck and let them issue them out. They distribute the bombs and missiles to the Squadron AO’s, who load the aircraft.”

A carrier deploys approximately 70 aircraft, including bomb-toting F-18 fighter jets and HS-60 attack helos.

“On G-2 is a mix of AOs and Gunner’s Mates (GM). They hold the small arms ammo and have to qualify personnel from the Weapons Department, Security Department, and Marines that come on board.

“The first couple times you’re down in a [carrier] magazine that carries a few hundred bombs at one time that aren’t built up yet – it’s nerve-wracking. It’s a serious danger if something were to go wrong. You want everybody going down and everybody coming up the same way they went downstairs.”

There’s a saying as an AO, when you’re building bombs, “get it done the first time right.”

Ugolini feeds off the letters they get from Marine and Army battalions saying “Hey — we appreciate the job you guys are doing with the ordnance. We haven’t had a dud since you got out here.” Anthony adds, “That lets me know as a team leader, the person organizing the bomb builds, that it was a successful build 100 percent of the time and that feels good – real good. These ground troops are sacrificing way more than any other department of the military.

“As long as I can save 100 Marines or 100 Army guys…that’s what I care about.” Such was the case when Ugolini deployed to the Arabian Sea during Operation Enduring Freedom. “A sniper taking Marines out demanded a specific bomb get built. It had a proximity sensor, meaning it’s airburst, so instead of hitting the ground and taking everything out, it’s specific for one thing. It got the mission done and saved countless Marines going around the block.”

Navy Aviation Ordnancemen are “like the big Frat house in the military,” says this calm, dark-eyed Italian American. “All we are is ammunition. Our bond is real strong – real deep. Out to sea, we work Monday - Sunday 12 hours on and 12 off. There are problems, there’s pressure, just like any other job. To relax, I find myself at the gym a lot. I call or email my wife. She might have had a bad day I wasn’t there for. When we pull into foreign ports, the AO’s like to hang out together and be as normal as possible.”

A “normal” day going into the Gulf straights towards Dubai comes to Ugolini’s mind.

“We had gun watches on our .50 caliber mounts, and got a call there was a bomb threat in the port towards the ship.”

Orders were given to keep eyes peeled for a ship or boat that could be a threat. Ugolini will never forget his A Gunner’s face, looking as if war had come to them. They couldn’t afford to have another USS Cole incident, the deadly attack against a Navy destroyer while it was harbored and refueled.

“We had to bring Marines on board to help with extra watches until a Security Team swept the pier.”

He calls his wife the hero, an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Fuels (ABF), who helps fuel aircraft on the flight deck. She recently volunteered to go on deployment, knowing it’s going to be difficult to leave her toddler and Anthony, now working on aircraft armament systems, at NAS North Island. Both will sacrifice, so their son can have a more secure life and future.

Anthony would tell a critic; “You don’t know what we’ve been through — what we’re set up to do to defend this country for its freedom. We chose to do this. We know the dangers in it. This is what we do.”

Ugolini used to drive a truck for an overnight mail delivery company. “I’d get so many deliveries in so many hours and I think that’s more strenuous than what I do now. While on the Reagan, we built hundreds of bombs and never had a single fail. It’s my job and I know the ins and outs of it.”

Think I’ll seize the day, knowing the cause of liberty will not fail on AO2 Ugolini’s 5th deck.