Nola (Joseph) Saldaña, 50, had an unusual start in life and an equally unusual career in the U.S. military. The China Spring resident — a full-blooded Maidu Indian — became a welder with the Navy, something you don’t often see women doing.
Saldaña was raised in Susanville, California, on an Indian reservation. The daughter of full-blooded Maidu Indians (a group native to California and Nevada), she grew up dirt-poor with five brothers and two other sisters.
As a child, she didn’t understand why she was treated differently. Lighter-skinned than her siblings, “I felt like I could move in either world — until they found out who my family was,” she said. Her brothers were often pulled over and harassed by the police, but her mom stood by them, admonishing her sons to obey.
“We never heard a bad word about anybody from my mother’s mouth,” Saldaña said. “She always taught us to treat others the way we wanted to be treated.”
Her father was often sick with diabetes; her mother took care of him. When Saldaña entered high school, she went to a boarding school, the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California. There, she learned Native American history and tribal government. She returned home for a year but decided she needed to get away, so in 1987, she went to Reno and joined the U.S. Navy.
In January 1988, she went to boot camp in Florida, followed by Hull Tech A School in Philadelphia and became a welder. Four months later she boarded her first ship, the USS Acadia, a huge destroyer tender. As part of WESTPAC, they traveled to the Persian Gulf, where they tended ships that fought in combat.
Life aboard the Acadia was exciting for Saldaña. She worked in the carpenter shop, repairing the broken, making new things and installing or repairing parts as needed.
“I miss it. I would climb in my rack at night, and it would lull me to sleep,” she said. She never was seasick.
Her travels included port stops in Hawaii, Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, among others. There were approximately 3,000 aboard, but only about 500 were women. “I was my own boss,” Saldaña said. “They were paying me to see the world.”
The only problem Saldaña (an unabashed tomboy) faced was having to fight at times, to keep the men from bothering her. Not everyone was a gentleman. “In the Navy, surrounded by nothing but men, you have to fight sometimes,” she said.
Saldaña spent almost two years aboard the Acadia before she became pregnant and got married. She left the boat but remained in the Navy.
Her next ship was the USS Dixon, part of a class of submarine tenders designed to accommodate attack submarines and service up to four submarines simultaneously. Her job as a radiation worker brought her regularly aboard nuclear submarines, where she was the only female in a division of 30 sailors.
The men would all take notice when Saldaña came on board. In her job in the reactor compartment, she was exposed to radiation. She wore a dosimeter to measure the dose of ionizing radiation to ensure she wasn’t hitting any limits in her exposure.
Policy dictates that a woman isn’t supposed to be on board a submarine when it gets underway. One time, when she was working, she felt it begin to move. While the men on the sub were at dinner on the Dixon, a tugboat moved it three piers down. When the men came out, they were surprised to find the ship was missing, along with Saldaña. It was the only time she was in a moving submarine.
In all, Saldaña spent about three years aboard the Dixon before she was assigned to an amphibious base in Coronado Island. There, she could watch the Navy Seals in training. It was quite a sight to see. “It was just like the documentaries on TV,” she said.
In December 1997, Saldaña left the Navy as an E-5 and attended school at Southwestern College in San Diego. From there, she went to Texas Tech in Lubbock, graduating with honors with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Saldaña moved to Waco with her husband and worked for the Texas Youth Commission, CPS and MHMR before landing a job at the VA in Waco, where she still works 13 years later. Unfortunately, she and her husband divorced.
Today, Saldaña has four children, one of whom is also in the service. Another one is planning to serve and currently is a member of the HOT Young Marines. Saldaña herself is a member of VFW Post 2148.
There are few women at the post, and Saldaña would like to see that change.
“Be strong and be a voice for other women,” Saldaña said. “There’s just not enough of us to speak up for each other.”
In honor of Texas women giving 70 years of service to the military, we will be featuring women throughout the month of June.