This article is part of an ongoing series about the veterans of Atlanta in which current and former servicemen and servicewomen recount their experiences in the U.S. military.
Jose Salazar, 45, grew up in San Francisco and joined the United States Army in 1985 at the age of 17. Salazar served both active duty and in the Army Reserves from 1985 until 2012. His Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was Personnel Records Specialist before switching to Military Police, with deployments to Korea, Germany, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Bosnia, and Iraq.
Salazar worked as an undercover Military Police agent, disrupting drug rings in Germany in the late '80s and early '90s, was present at the fall of the Berlin Wall, served in theater during Desert Storm, was part of the multinational peace-keeping force in Bosnia in the mid-'90s, and returned to the Middle East as part of the first forces pushing into Iraq in 2004.
He now lives with his family in Atlanta.
Growing up in the city, I was on the wrong side of the tracks, running out in the streets. I'd gotten booted out of school. My mom decided to enlist me in the military. Like they love to say in the military, "Join the Army or go to jail." That was pretty much the option that I had.
I ended up going to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. I went in real cold and real blind. We got off the bus and they put us in a reception company for a week, shining boots and ironing uniforms. Then they packed us up on cattle cars, basically moving vans with little bitty airplane windows. As soon as the trucks stopped, the doors opened and the hollering began. Eight weeks of that.
I ended up making one good friend. We were sports fanatics, [playing] baseball, basketball, football. But if you're a superstud, as [the drill instructors] would call it, they'd just pound you more: "We're gonna see what you can do."
I'm really not happy being hollered at, "Hurry up and eat your food in two seconds and after that we're gonna run 700 miles." Graduation was a relief.
Salazar's first duty station was in South Korea as a personnel specialist. The U.S. military maintains a force of approximately 28,500 soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors in South Korea, a presence first established in 1957 as a subordinate command of the U.S. Pacific Command.
The farthest I'd been away from home before that was Texas. I was working in the "Turtle Farm," in-processing. It was called the Turtle Farm because you had two buildings, 10 feet apart from each other. One was in-processing, one was out-processing. It takes you one year to get from one door to the other. Everybody was a turtle.
We worked with KATUSA soldiers — Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army. I got to learn from them what to eat, where to go, [what the] country had to offer. I got to go down to the southern point of Korea, a kind of beach resort, to Cheju Island, where we did a repelling school. The job was pretty good. It was really a lot of fun. Here I am 17, 18 years old and in a completely different country. I enjoyed my time there to the point where I didn't want to leave.
After reassignment to Fort Stewart, Ga., Salazar changed his MOS to Military Police in 1989.
One training exercise, we had to play criminals against the other MP students. I managed to get a weapon inside the police station. We had to do a mock investigation, and I was interviewed by an Air Force Special Agent. He couldn't get a confession out of me. He finally said, "We're gonna terminate this exercise because I want to talk to you for real." He ended up telling me to work with the drug suppression team. Being able to go back and forth with the investigator, [he told me], "That's what we're looking for. We're looking for people who can infiltrate the drug rings and go after the big fish." I hadn't graduated MP school yet.
Salazar was assigned to Bremerhaven, Germany, and spent his first year as a desk sergeant. That year, the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the Cold War.
I actually went up to the wall as it came down and got a piece. I met a Russian soldier who traded parts of his uniform for parts of mine. The East Germans — watching them take two steps over and then two steps back and then two steps over, just because they could — that was an experience that I'll never forget.
After his first year, Salazar was reassigned to the drug suppression team, a branch of the Military Police that worked with local law enforcement to disrupt the narcotics trade in that region, both as an assistance to the citizens of the area and to keep drugs from ending up in the hands of U.S. military personnel. In Bremerhaven, the drug trade was run largely by Turkish and Nigerian cartels.
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