Not every veteran can say they found their passion through their time in the military, but David Barragan is certainly among them.
“It was a blessing because it really steered me in the right direction and eventually led me to my job in life — it all worked out,” Barragan said.
He didn’t started out doing exactly what he wanted to do, yet it was that path that led him to his career at the Department of Defense, where he worked for 39 years.
Barragan was born on Nov. 12, 1954, to Mary and Raoul Barragan in San Fernando.
“I’m a Valley boy,” he said. “In fact, all of my family scattered — I was the only one that really stayed put.”
His father was born in Spain, his mother was from Mexico, yet Barragan was supposed to speak only English during his childhood years.
“My mother and father had a disagreement on that, and my father won that one,” he said. “I think my dad was looking at the whole picture as we got older and wanted us assimilated; and I think he was looking at, career-wise, it would benefit us.”
Barragan was the baby of the family, the youngest of five. There was a five-year difference between him and his sister, and his siblings always made fun of him because he was “the one that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“I grew up kind of independently,” he said. “They were very strict with my sister and the brothers, but by the time I came around, I think my parents were a little burnt out from bringing up the others, so they gave me a lot more leeway.”
Barragan grew up in a very close-knit community where “everybody seemed to know everybody.”
“At the time, I think it was 90-95% Hispanic,” he said. “There were some rough parts of town. It was a working-class neighborhood; but overall, it was a positive experience.”
Barragan went to a Catholic elementary school, and then San Fernando High School. He began working at 16 as a box boy at one of the local markets.
The job was union, so he made good money and was able to buy his own car within a year, he said.
“I was one of the few that had my own car, so I was the driver, and we’d go cruising around,” he said.
High school had its positive and negative moments, as his school had some gang issues, but Barragan was able to stay out of trouble, “most of the time.”
“We still had a lot of respect, even though we were the younger generation,” he said. “That’s one thing the parents always stressed was respect of the elders.”
When Barragan was a high school senior, the draft lottery for the Vietnam War was still underway.
“I knew the draft was going to be a for-sure thing,” he said. “My cousin was in the Navy, and he told me that was a good way to go.”
Barragan went to talk to the Navy recruiter and, “It sounded good.” So, in May 1972, at 17, Barragan enlisted in the Navy just before he got his high school diploma.
He was the only one of his siblings to go into the military, so naturally his mother cried, “as all mothers do,” but it was his father who signed the papers.
“I think he felt that I needed to find myself, as they say,” he said. “Unfortunately, he passed on a few months after that.”
“I was still 17 when I went to boot camp in San Diego,” he said. “It was tough. As a young kid, my parents gave me a lot of leeway. So, being told what to do 24/7 was a big adjustment, but I got through it.”
Barragan started as a fireman recruit on the USS San Bernardino, a transport and supply ship.
“The ship would spend six months in the Philippines, then we’d do six months in San Diego,” he said. “We would take Marines and equipment to Vietnam, and then return to the Philippines.”
The ship was already in the Philippines, so they flew him out there after boot camp.
“When I got aboard my ship, I worked in the engine rooms,” Barragan said. “They used to call it ‘the hole.’ That was tough because it was over 100 degrees — it’s a lot of heat.”
After a month, he volunteered for mess duty, looking for a change in environment on the ship.
He went back to the engineering department, and then back to the hole after three months, but Barragan got lucky once again.
A yeoman who did administrative and clerical work was leaving, and the ship needed a new one. Barragan got the job because he knew how to type.
“That took me out of the hole, and I worked in an office thereafter, so that worked out well,” he said, chuckling.
His duties included being the captain’s “phone talker,” which meant he communicated between the captain and all the other points of the ship during activities like mooring the ship.
“Then for ‘general quarters,’ which was battle stations, being on the bridge was the most exciting place to be,” Barragan said. “You could see everything and hear everything.”
Barragan continued as yeoman and returned to the Philippines various times during his two years of active duty. After the war ended, he went on a “goodwill tour,” visiting all the nearby ports, including Fiji, Japan, Korea and Australia.
“It was called a 2-by-6, so you do two years of active, four years of Reserves,” he said.
After his active-duty years, Barragan returned to the San Fernando Valley and began working as a yeoman at the Encino Reserve Center.
“I decided to stay in and made a career out of the Navy Reserve,” he said.
At that time, he was going to California State University, Northridge, for a degree in social work, so he got a part-time job in the cafeteria at the Veterans Administration building on Sepulveda Boulevard.
“Once I got my degree, I went into (the) Social Security Administration because I wanted to continue my government service,” Barragan said.
He worked in Encino for a few years as a reservist before he was transferred to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Port Hueneme,California. Then, in 1979, he and his wife, Gloria, moved to Santa Clarita.
Around that time, the Department of Defense was looking for investigators.
“They were bringing in mostly military police, law enforcement types, but they wanted to change their mode of thinking and bring in social workers, psychologists, to do the background checks instead,” he said. “It was perfect timing.”
So, Barragan began working for the Defense Investigative Services as a special agent doing background checks.
“I did a lot of traveling,” he said. “I got to go to Europe a few times, England, Germany and Italy, and all over the East Coast and the South.”
It was through that job that he was chosen to go into Naval Intelligence on the Reserve side, working first at the Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego for a few years, then with the Navy Investigative Services at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.
By the end of his time with the Navy Reserve, he was getting tired of commuting, so he transferred back to Port Hueneme as a yeoman, where he retired as a yeoman first class in 1998.
Barragan had opportunities to move into management through his work with the DOD, but he enjoyed being out in the field and meeting a variety of people.
“That was the best part of it, always meeting somebody different every day for years and years,” he said. “It was very rewarding doing that type of work.”
Barragan left the DOD in January 2013, after 38 years. He couldn’t stay away, though, and went to work for a defense contractor for a couple of years, doing the same type of work, before he was asked to return to the DOD for one more year to help them train new hires.
“That was it, I just left it entirely after that,” he said. “It was really hard for me the first year, because you do something for so long, it’s really tough. I really had to find my way.”
It took Barragan a solid year to adjust and begin getting rid of his dress clothing. That was around the time when he learned of the Santa Clarita Valley Veterans Services Collaborative, and Barragan started attending their meetings.
“I’ve always enjoying working around the military and, to this day, I’m still around the military,” he said.
When Barragan isn’t hiking or playing golf, he spends a lot of his time volunteering, not only at the collaborative and Veteran Center every Monday, but also at the College of the Canyons office for veterans.
“It’s really rewarding when you can help a veteran when they’re trying to find their way through the maze of the Veterans Administration,” he said. “And then there are those who just want to stop by and talk and tell their war stories … Some of them had some hardships, so they’re just looking for a listening ear.”
Looking back, Barragan realized he’s spent nearly his entire adult life surrounded by the military.
“So really, for over 40 years, I was either in the military or worked with the military — a good chunk of my life,” he said. “I think very few people get to do in life get what they really enjoy, so I feel very blessed that I liked my work. It was very fulfilling. When my time comes, no regrets.”
Barragan attributes the draft to helping him find that fulfillment.
“I don’t know if I would have joined, but it kind of made my decision earlier,” he said. “It was great for me because it gave me the opportunity to join the Navy before getting drafted by the Army. People can go back and forth about the draft, but it promoted patriotism.”