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VET SERIES: Rick Ayala, Jr.

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

By Deanna Ryan

Rick Ayala Jr. was born and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 1986, after receiving his GED certificate at the age of 17, Rick realized he needed something positive in his life that could bring opportunities, so he joined the Army. He chose to go the route of his father’s friend, Bobby Alonso, who took pride in having served. Bobby was an electrician in the 82nd Airborne who caught Rick’s attention as a child by jumping out of the back of their truck into a snowbank and on occasion taking his fake eye out for all to see.

The first ten years of his career, Rick was assigned to the 129th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) and the 1st of the 75th Ranger Regiment, both located at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga. There, the daily drill became a part of his life: “Everybody shows up at 6:30 a.m. Everybody does physical exercise from 6:30-7:30 a.m. Everybody shows up for work at nine.” He thrived with routine and attended Airborne, Air Assault, and Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) schools within his first three years.

While in Airborne school in Fort Benning, Ga., Rick recalls his first experience feeling like he was "in a human stampede of 64 paratroopers jumping out of a speeding locomotive. Before you hit the ground, you feel the violent opening of the parachute which then renders you an observer of the beauty of the sky and stars.” The training also taught him “how to think under pressure and complete tasks.” To remain on airborne status after he graduated, he was required to make one jump every three months. He kept this status for eight of his years of service.

The toughest course he took during his first years was SERE school at Fort Bragg, N.C. where, at 17, he was the youngest participant. Soldiers-in-training were presented with the scenario of being in a helicopter shot down behind enemy lines. Each group had to find a way to make it back to friendly territory. The experience left him ten pounds lighter in three weeks.

After Rick left Savannah in 1996, he served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Screaming Eagles and the 2nd of 160th SOAR in Fort Campbell, Kentucky for three years. There he learned to repel and fast rope out of helicopters.

From 1999-2002 Rick’s assignment to the Special Operations Theater and Support Element (SOTSE) in Heidelberg, Germany opened the door to more training. When he wasn’t serving as a liaison between the German and American forces, he returned to the US to attend Jumpmaster School, Battle Staff, and an Introduction to Terrorism Awareness Course (INTAC).

At Fort Bragg, N.C. Jumpmaster school taught Rick how to go through a sequence to make sure all of the jumpers’ equipment was safe, their rifles and rucksacks secure, and the aircraft ready to release soldiers. “We took them in the air and controlled the events that led up to them jumping out of the aircraft. It was a very routine and safety-oriented ritual. I didn’t deviate because it could have cost someone their life.”

The Terrorism Awareness School provided Rick with the means of becoming more aware of his surroundings, by learning “how to tell if a car is tailing you, how to check your vehicle to see if it’s been tampered with, how to identify individuals who may present a threat.” A segment of the course involved crashing beat-up cars without being injured while maneuvering through roadblock scenarios.

The military schools Rick attended provided him with the training he needed to overcome life’s obstacles. “You have to believe in what you are doing and believe in your training. Hopefully it kicks in when you encounter any type of real-world scenario, and you are able to walk away.”

While in Germany his liaison duties required he set up Airborne jumps, firing ranges, training, funding, lodging and anything else the Americans and Germans forces needed to perform jumps, live fire, and night fire.

As part of maintaining his airborne status, Rick attended jumpschools in Germany and Belgium. He noticed the Belgium Airborne School differed from the American one because in the US soldiers jumped out of C-130s and C-141s, whereas in Belgium they had “a semi-truck with a big winch attached to a thick wire with an air balloon carrying a cage. The balloon rose to 1,000 ft. and the soldiers jumped from there.”

On Rick’s first Belgium jump, he recalls, “there were four of us in the cage, some were French soldiers. The jumpmaster took us up. He was very formal. A female French soldier was in the first corner. The jumpmaster unlatched the gate and motioned to the opening saying, ‘If you please.’ She jumped out, but a split second after, she turned 180 degrees and grabbed onto the cage defying gravity. With her chest just above the floor, she stared at the jumpmaster who repeated, ‘If you please.’ She didn’t, so he put his boot on her helmet and gave her a gentle nudge. She dropped, her parachute opened and she landed safely. After that she went up again, and like everyone else, graduated with Belgium Airborne wings.” Rick had never seen anything like it before or after. He would go on to do over 55 jumps.

During the last part of Rick’s military experience from 2006-2007, he was a training sergeant in Fort Irwin, Calif. Here near Death Valley, Army units cycled before being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.

After 21 years of service, he decided it was time to retire and move to Emanuel County so he could be closer to his children, Jessica and Aaron, who were living in Johnson County. Fourteen years later, he’s still here and his family has grown to include two grandsons, Brayden and Gannon, a son-in-law Ryan Webb, a daughter-in-law, Paige Ayala, and a fiancé who currently writes for the local paper.

A long line of Rick’s family have chosen to serve. On his father Richard’s side, his uncles Angel, Sebastian and Gabby served in the Army, Airforce and Korean War respectively. On his mother Julietta’s side, his uncles David and Snap served in the Army and Vietnam. His younger sister Anna Short was a combat medic in the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) in Fort Campbell and her two sons have served. Robert was in the Navy while Koalii is currently serving in the Army in Alaska. Last, but not least, Rick’s son, Aaron Ayala, is full-time National Guard.

To this day, Rick carries with him things he learned from his 21 years and 7 months in the Army. He stays aware of his surroundings. He uses routines to complete tasks, but more importantly, he’s learned the importance of accountability, responsibility, and how to maintain composure under pressure.

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