SamTrans employs many military veterans throughout the agency, including mechanics, bus operators, engineers and administrative employees. As a way of demonstrating our gratitude for their contributions, SamTrans is highlighting their stories throughout the year.
Enrique Silvas was six months from his high school graduation in Gary, Indiana, when he made the decision to join the Marines. “I had been in Junior ROTC for four years and I was offered an Army scholarship but I decided to join the Marines because I liked the colors of the uniforms,” said Silvas.
After basic training in San Diego, Silvas was stationed at Camp Pendleton where he was trained to operate heavy equipment. “My whole career has been in transportation,” said Silvas, “And it all started in the Marines.” Silvas learned to drive everything from buses to tractor trailers to two-ton trucks, eventually getting promoted to Lance Corporal. “I liked being on the road,” said Silvas. “I didn’t want to be behind a desk.”
After his discharge in 1981 Silvas went back to Indiana, where, in just a few days, he got a job as truck driver hauling steel. “My military license was good anywhere I wanted to go,” said Silvas. But after just three months he was laid off, a victim of the declining American steel industry.
Silvas returned to his old stomping grounds in Southern California where he found a job working for North County Transit District. Serving northern San Diego County, the transit agency is a multi-modal agency similar to SamTrans, operating Breeze bus service, Coaster commuter trains and Sprinter light rail service. Silvas worked for the agency for 18 years, with 14 years as a bus operator before working his way up from dispatcher to trainer and then supervisor.
Silvas came to SamTrans 13 years ago, starting his career with the district as a service supervisor. He attributes his ability to adjust to his new surroundings to military training. “The unofficial motto of the Marines is ‘improvise, adapt, overcome,’” said Silvas. Silvas helped to develop and implement SamTrans’ Advanced Communications System before becoming the associate administrator responsible for overseeing SamTrans’ operating contracts. “I have learned a lot here,” said Silvas, “It has been challenging and rewarding.”
Looking back on his time in the Marines, Silvas said, “The Marines stripped you down, down to the way you brushed your teeth, and taught you how to be a leader. I have tried to live my life the way the Marines trained me. It made me who I am today.”
SamTrans Bus Transportation Supervisor Art Gonzalez seems to be on a parallel path with Silvas. Although Gonzalez grew up on the Peninsula, he too decided to join the Marines while still in high school.
Gonzalez’ decision was influenced by the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, which killed 220 Marines. “Kids my age were murdered in their sleep and I had just had a great day,” said Gonzalez. “It really struck a chord with me.”
Gonzalez made an appointment with the Army Recruiter, whose office was at Serramonte Mall. “The day of my appointment, it was pouring. I get to the office and the recruiter isn’t there. I am standing outside in the rain. The Marine recruiter is next door and he sticks his head out the door and says, ‘Are you sure you want to enlist with someone who doesn’t even keep his appointment with you?’” Gonzalez became a Marine.
Gonzalez’ father, who was a SamTrans bus operator, was “completely opposed” to his son becoming a Marine. In spite of his objections, he agreed to sign Gonzalez’ enlistment papers when he was 17. As part of the deal, Gonzalez was not required to report for active duty until after he graduated from high school.
Two days after graduating from El Camino High School, he was on his way to basic training. After basic training “I was presented with a lot of options,” said Gonzalez and, again over his father’s objections, he chose the infantry.
After his discharge, thanks to his training in the Marines, Gonzalez found employment in the security department at North County Transit District. It was at NCTD that Gonzalez and Silvas, two Marine veterans, became colleagues. When Gonzalez moved to SamTrans he encouraged Silvas to do the same.
Gonzalez said that he continues to rely on his experience in the Marines at SamTrans. In addition to supervising bus operators, Gonzalez is responsible for assisting riders, spotting and correcting traffic hazards and investigating accidents. The ability to work with people is critical. Gonzalez said being in the Marines taught him “how to read people. I learned that you can’t treat everyone the same. You have to treat people as individuals.”
But Gonzalez said the most important lesson he learned as a Marine was, “just how lucky I was to be born in this country and how lucky I am to live here. Everything else takes a back seat to that.”