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Verland French, now 77, back when he served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, ending in 1979. The photo hangs up in French's home.

SRPMIC Community Member Dedicated 20 Years to the U.S. Navy

The 77-year-old Vietnam veteran and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member dedicated 20 years of his life to the U.S. Navy because he loved the water and the sailor’s life.

His days in the Navy ended almost 40 years ago, in 1979, as a Navy chief boatswain’s mate, but his memories continue to live on through his storytelling, even as he approaches 80.

“I’ve seen places that other people have only seen in magazines or movies,” French said.

French graduated from Mesa High School in 1958 and joined the military shortly after. “My mom signed the papers and I was ready to go,” he said.

While he was in high school, recruiters from the Army, Air Force and Navy visited, and it was the Navy recruiter that caught French’s attention more so, including memories of a trip to San Diego.

“The story he was telling us, that’s for me,” French said. “I remember one summer my dad took us to California, and I remember going through and I see all these sailors walking around in white uniforms. ‘That’s for me,’ I said. ‘That’s for me.’”

At boot camp in California, French’s life as a sailor was born, but it started with potential conflict. His initial four-year commitment included his ship’s visit to the waters near Cuba through the Panama Canal in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. French’s duties included working on a landing craft utility, a type of boat that transports equipment and soldiers from ships to shore.

Four years at sea wasn’t enough, so he enlisted again, this time for six years. Arizona and the reservation could wait, he said. “There was nothing here to come back for, no real opportunities,” French said. “It wasn’t what it is today.”

SRPMIC member and Vietnam War veteran Verland French in his billards trophy room. The 77-year-old won multiple pool tournaments while serving 20 years in the U.S. Navy.
French spent five years and one month in the Vietnam War and many nights in the South China Sea as the ship’s boatswain’s mate. The ship would go back and forth between the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam, transporting cargo.

“Primarily, boatswain’s mates are supposed to be one of the hardest-working ratings in the Navy because we are the ones out there cleaning the ship, sweeping it down, mopping it, chipping the paint, taking off all the rust. We had big boats on the ship that we had to lift off the ship,” French said.

French called five Navy ships home: the USS Constellation, USS Washburn, USS Matthews, USS Gunston Hall and USS Pickaway.

French was also a champion billiards player, winning many tournaments while stationed in the Philippines at the U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay.

French said one of his biggest accomplishments in his 20 years served was helping to bring attention to institutional racism. The Navy implemented classes on race and class after French and others pushed for it. French also benefited from counseling for alcoholism while in the Navy.

Today, French lives in Mesa and is active in the American Legion in Gila River. French served two years on the SRPMIC Council, from 2000 to 2002.

French wears a bosun whistle on his neck lanyard, just like the one he had in the Navy. But instead of using it to grab the attention of sailors, he blows the whistle when he needs help getting around at home because of his limitations from Parkinson’s disease.

French’s final wish is for his ashes to be spread at sea off the coast of California.

“I miss the Navy. I miss everything, even seagulls,” he said. “I miss the salt air. I just miss the ride.”