Sal Paolantonio has been a national correspondent for ESPN since 1995, and he’s authored multiple books, including How Football Explains America.
What most ESPN viewers don’t know is that Sal served five years in the United States Navy from 1978-83, during which time he was awarded the United Nations Meritorious Service Medal in 1981 for supervising the rescue of Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea. Sal discusses his time in the service and the importance of Veterans Day with Front Row.
FR: What influenced you to serve in the military?
SP: There is a history of service in my family and that’s the reason. My dad had two brothers, my mom had six, and they all served in either the Marine Corps or the Navy. But my father was born with cataract and was four-F’d out of the Korean War. He didn’t pass his physical because of his extremely poor eyesight. My uncle Tony, who is my dad’s oldest brother and my godfather, was on submarines in the North Sea in World War II. I can remember him coming to one of my birthday parties when I was a kid, and telling me it was important for me to go into the Navy because my father never had the chance to serve, and I had to follow in the family tradition. It was pretty much preordained that I would serve.
I always wanted to and then I had the opportunity. I delayed my career. I already had a graduate degree in journalism from NYU. I wanted to be a writer and a reporter — I was a Watergate baby– and I put that on hold. I actually got in in 1978 and finished in ’83. I served five years.
FR: What did your service entail?
SP: I went to Officer Candidate School and served on two ships in the Pacific fleet, the USS Ouellet, which was a Knox-class frigate, and USS Haleakala, which was an ammunition carrier. I served in a number of jobs: First Lieutenant, Gunnery Officer, Weapons Officer, Navigator, Special Intelligence Officer. I had three tours of duty in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Most of what we did was we chased Russian submarines around the Indian Ocean during the Cold War. Luckily, I never fired a shot in anger at anything or anybody.
FR: What was the most memorable part of your experience?
SP: It was peace time and on my way out of the Indian Ocean in 1981, I had the privilege and honor of leading the rescue of Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea for an entire summer, processing them through the United Nations refugee camps in Singapore, so that they could come to the United States. We spent a lot of time pulling refugees out of the water before they were hijacked by pirates at the high sea. That was a pretty intense humanitarian mission that we were involved in on my last ship.
It was extremely rewarding because these people were desperate. They were on these little 20-25 foot boats with literally hundreds of people on them, stacked on top of each other. When we got to them, they were usually out of food and water. They were either going to be swallowed up by the ocean or hijacked. We were able to rescue a lot of them — hundreds of them — and get them to safety.
FR: What happened after they were rescued?
SP: After I got out of the military for a while there, I kept in touch with a couple of families that were repatriated in the United States in the Dallas area. One of them went on to be a mid-level executive at American Airlines. And there’s a whole community of Vietnamese Americans who live in Dallas and we basically started that back in the early 1980s. The Dallas Cowboys actually drafted a player [Dat Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to play in the NFL] who was part of that community. I don’t know whether or not his family was one of the ones we pulled out of the South China Sea, but I know we wound up processing a lot of them that ended up in the Dallas area.
It’s an amazing story and it shows you the power of the American military and the importance of what the American military has done through the decades in terms of saving people from oppressive governments and giving them hope and new life. We have such a great country and people want to come here.
FR: Do you work with Veteran’s groups today?
SP: I volunteer for the Wounded Warrior Project in New Jersey. I go over to Fort Dix and read to Wounded Warriors who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I give them football talks. I am also involved in the Veterans Project in Camden County, N.J., to connect dog tags that were found in Vietnam and get them to the families of those who were killed in action or missing in action. There are dog tags that are still found all over the country. Veterans go over there and buy them on the street and bring them back here, and we try to make sure they get in the hands of the family.
FR: What’s the most important message people should take away during Veteran’s Week?
SP: As things are winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are going to be a lot of guys who are going to be coming home, and many of them will be coming home with lost limbs who have been wounded. It’s really important for us to bring them back into our society and make them important members of our society. These are people you want to have around you. They understand shared sacrifice, flourishing in the face of adversity, leadership and what it takes to be part of a team. I would encourage people who have the chance to hire somebody, or work with someone in a civic organization, to reach out to Wounded Warriors and find these young men and women who are coming back, and make them part of what you’re doing. These are valuable people who have a lot to contribute.