Navy, Army Veteran Recalls Diverse Missions
In his first war, he was a teenager.
In his second war, he was in his mid-50s.
In his first war, he was a Navy sailor.
In his second war, he was an Army soldier.
In his first war, he was an enlisted man.
In his second war, he was an officer.
In his first war, he earned the Purple Heart when hit with shrapnel during a firefight.
In his second war, he had troops to take care of. Thankfully, none of them perished.
In his first war, he looked for enemy explosives.
In his second war, he tried to avoid them.
In both wars, he remembers being frightened.
When others compare the Vietnam War to the current war in Afghanistan, Bastrop County Commissioner William M. Piña gives pause for thought. After all, he was part of both.
“In Vietnam, we usually knew our enemy,” Piña recalled. “You knew who the North Vietnamese were by their uniforms. The targets were mostly military.
“Dealing with terrorists is different,” he continued, referring to his tour of duty in Afghanistan. “They target everyone – men, women and children. And the biggest danger is the IED (improvised explosive device.)”
Actually, explosives were a key part of Piña’s mission in Vietnam where the 21-year-old Boatswain Mate 2nd Class (BM2) was part of a six-man crew in Mine Division 113 onboard Minesweeper River Boat 5 (MSR-5). Piña was 18 years old when he enlisted during the Vietnam War, and 21 when he served in-country.
The crew, part of the Brown Water Navy, was charged with sweeping the waters for enemy mines thereby keeping open and protecting critical supply channels and denying their use to the enemy.
“Most of the mines were homemade and detonated by contact or wire,” Piña explained.
MSRs, equipped with special minesweeping gear and electronics, were used as command and control boats for the MSD (Minesweeping Drone). The MSD was a 23-foot, remote-controlled minesweeping boat powered by a 327 Chevrolet gasoline engine, Piña said.
As part of Operation Barrier Reef with the Border Interdiction Patrol, Piña participated in more than 250 minesweeping and combat patrols in Vietnam and was engaged in four separate firefights with the enemy.
One of those firefights occurred on Feb. 13, 1970, while on a night ambush operation, also known as water borne guard post, near Ha Tien.
“We were hit by a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) round on the port side of the boat’s fantail,” Piña remembered, “where shrapnel from the explosion and blast caused my head injury and loss of hearing. Thank God my head injury was minor.”
Piña regained his hearing, and his wounds did not require medical evacuation. Rather, Piña was quickly treated by a Navy corpsman, and he returned to duty.
In August 1970, he arrived home and used the G.I. Bill for college beginning at San Antonio College and eventually transferring to the University of Texas at Austin. Some four-plus years later, Piña graduated from UT with a major in economics; all the while, he remained in the Naval Reserve.
In 1978, a friend and fellow Vietnam veteran encouraged Piña to attend Officer Candidate School, and in June 1979 he received his dual commission in the U.S. Army and Texas Army National Guard. Throughout the next several decades, Piña was promoted from his initial rank of second lieutenant to first lieutenant, captain, major and lieutenant colonel.
While in the Texas National Guard, Piña worked for the Texas Department of Human Services, beginning as an eligibility worker in a San Antonio field office and ending in Austin as director of Client Services and Program Integrity for Lone Star Technology. As part of Lone Star, Piña managed the security and accountability operations of the electronic benefits transfer system to help safeguard and prevent fraud and abuse of program benefits.
Piña retired in 2001 after 24 years with the state and soon joined the Retired State Employees Association of Texas, where he served as president until his National Guard unit was tapped for active duty.
In 2004, the National Guard’s 136th Regiment Regional Training Institute (RTI 136), of which Piña was a part, was called up to Afghanistan with orders cut for 18 months.
As part of Operation Enduring Freedom’s Coalition Joint Task Force Phoenix III, members of the RTI 136 were sent to the Kabul Military Training Center in Afghanistan.
Comprised of National Guard units from more than 20 states, along with the Indiana National Guard’s 76th Infantry Brigade Headquarters, and contingents from seven different countries, the Task Force Phoenix mission was and continues to be the following: “Train the Afghan National Army, which will contribute to stability of the country and help prevent the re-emergence of terrorism.” http://globalsecurity.org/military/agency/dod/cjtf-phoenix.htm.
Lt. Col. Piña was named deputy commander for Training and Doctrine with the Training Assistance Group and was paired with two Afghan colonels for the purpose of mentoring and training.
“While I was there, I had folks under me, troops to take care of,” Piña recalled. While the Task Force lost four soldiers, Piña did not lose anyone in his unit.
“You have to remember, it’s a different kind of war,” Piña said. “When we traveled, we wore body armor. Terrorism has no rules,” he emphasized. “Terrorists don’t care if they blow up women or children or bystanders.”
Piña, who turned 56 during his tour, returned home after 12 months on the ground in Afghanistan.
In June 2007, Piña’s age forced his mandatory retirement from the military. All in all, his service spanned four decades, with 12 years as an enlisted man and 28 years as a commissioned officer. The three highest honors among the many he earned during his military career are the Legion of Merit Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and the Purple Heart Medal.
The 80th Texas Legislature honored Piña with House Resolution 2613 which includes the following…
WHEREAS, Throughout his accomplished military career, William M. Piña has proven himself a leader of incomparable skill and impeccable judgment, and his inspired performance as a member of the Texas Army National Guard is worthy of the highest praise…”(See full resolution, http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/, search Legislation 80(R) – 2007, Bill Number HR2613.)
After closing the chapter on his military service, Piña set his sights on his community, making several bids for local office before winning his first election in 2008 as Bastrop County commissioner.
This time around, his challenges include land use, water conservation, and road congestion, to name a few.
“Bastrop County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Texas and within the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area; therefore, our county government faces many challenging growth issues,” Piña maintained. “Although I ran for public office before and lost, I chose to run again offering my leadership experience gained over the years in the military.”
Whether in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam as an enlisted man, or traversing the desolate mountainous terrain in Afghanistan as a commissioned officer, “my temperament has endured many stressful situations and adapted to overcome many challenges to ensure end results for a team to accomplish a successful mission.”
The Bastrop County Commissioners Court is a team, Piña emphasized, and the team mission is to work together, proactively and with determined integrity, for the good of the citizens and the taxpayers of the county.
“There is a prayer which I said every day in Afghanistan,” Piña recalled. “Since I have taken the oath of this office, I say it every day. It’s a good prayer for anyone in leadership.”
Titled “Prior to a Mission,” it goes something like this: “… give us wisdom in our decisions, common sense in our actions, discretion in our communications, and openness in our attitude as we work together …”