A masked man sits in his chair sending sparks soaring through the air with his torch in hand. The gritty air smells of charred metal and ash as smoke billows upwards to the ceiling. He concentrates on the damaged piece of steel in front of him, a wound that can only be healed by flame. He lifts his mask to wipe the sweat off his brow, revealing a smile that can only be produced by the satisfaction of doing what he loves to do.
Many people who join the United States Navy enter a job field in which they have little or no prior experience. That was not the case for Hull Technician Fireman Apprentice Andrew Mendez, assigned to USS Nimitz’ (CVN 68) welding shop. Mendez has been welding since his freshman year of high school, and is using his skills to make himself, his shipmates and ship better and stronger.
Mendez said that when he first began welding it was just to take up a class in high school, but almost instantly sparked a new passion for him.
“Once I started doing it, I started getting better and better at it,” said Mendez. “And, as I got better I kept enjoying it more and more.”
After high school, Mendez took college classes to become a certified blacksmith and welder. He then went on to hold welding jobs in California and Hawaii. Most recently, he worked on a ranch welding parts for corrals and barns.
“With my prior experience, I look at what I’m doing now a lot differently,” said Mendez. “The job I had was great; I made decent money, but there were no benefits and it wasn’t steady. We only worked when there was a job to work on.”
At the age of 25, Mendez traded the sunny paradises of California and Hawaii for a uniform and the high seas in order to support his wife and two kids with a reliable paycheck and benefits. He said he had always wanted to serve; it just took him longer than most people.
“When I came in, I thought I would do something different,” said Mendez. “But, when I mentioned I had welded before, my recruiter told me ‘Hey! You should be a hull technician, all they do is weld.’”
Hull technicians do much more than just weld, such as wood work and piping. But, Mendez’ experience helped him get into the welding shop on board Nimitz.
“It’s weird being older than your boss,” Mendez said with a chuckle. “I’ve had 1st and 2nd classes coming up to me asking for my advice on how to continue on a job or what I would do differently.”
Hull Technician 2nd Class Douglas Harris, weld shop work center supervisor for the weld shop aboard Nimitz, spoke with Mendez when he first showed up and learned about his welding history.
“When he first got here we were really short handed and since he already knew how to weld, I tried to get him down here,” said Harris. “He was here for only a few days and was already contributing to the shop.”
Mendez’ experience gave him the skills to teach his shipmates different or more efficient ways to complete a project.
“I’ve developed the eye for seeing how to save the most amount of time,” said Mendez. “I got my trial and error done before the Navy, so now I can pass on what I’ve learned.”
Mendez said that even though what he’s doing is nothing new, he feels a stronger sense of importance with what his work entails because of what is at stake.
“There are a lot of people who depend on the work we do,” said Mendez. The whole ship depends on us because if a tool or something critical to someone’s job is broken, they can’t do what they have to until we get it up and running again.”
With 10 years of welding experience under his belt, Mendez may be one of the most experienced welders in his pay grade, but nonetheless has had to adjust to all the rules and safety requirements that the Navy has in place.
“I completely understand the safety rules,” said Mendez. “When you’ve got 3,000 people working on a ship, versus before when I had four guys on a 300 acre ranch, there are people on the other side of the bulkhead not knowing what you’re doing and you don’t know what they’re doing, so you need to be safe.”
Welding is not only a career for Mendez, but also a hobby he enjoys in his free time.
“I’ve got some buddies here who always need help on stuff,” said Mendez. “When I’m not on the job we’re always building custom stuff for our trucks, or any kind of project really, whatever two pieces of metal I can stick together.”
Just as Mendez fuses together whatever he is welding, his shares a close bond between what he loves to do and his career. Whether welding parts for sheds and cages or working on important pieces for Nimitz, Mendez is doing what he loves to do while at the same time helping Nimitz fix for the fight.
Story and photos by MCSA Weston Mohr