31-year local soldier closing door on military life

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 14, 2003

Master Sgt. John Laigaie speaks about his military career.(C. Todd Sherman The Vicksburg Post)

[7/14/03]Beginning with service as a diver in Vietnam, U.S. Army Master Sgt. John Laigaie III has spent his career demonstrating his love for his country.

This past weekend was Laigaie’s last with his troops at the Vicksburg-based Army Reserve 412th Engineer Command. After a career filled with military assignments for nearly 31 years, the last six based here, he is to retire this month.

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“I was raised by soldiers,” Laigaie said, adding that his father, uncles and grandfather all served in the military. “It’s the family business.”

After enlisting in the Navy in 1968, at age 17, Laigaie has spent about a third of his career each in combat, recruiting and engineering. For all but a few years of that time, he has also been training others.

He is retiring now only because extreme headaches sometimes prevent him from devoting his full energy to his duties with the 412th.

“I’m not going because I want to,” he said. “I’m going because I can’t do justice to the job.”

As the combat operations sergeant and trainer for the 412th, which coordinates engineering efforts globally, Laigaie deals “with individual training, anything you can do by yourself,” he said. He listed “shoot the rifle, put on a protective mask,” in addition to “how to use a map” and “troop-leading procedures” as examples.

For the 412th, he has handled soldier-qualification and -testing what he called “the big three” areas: physical fitness, weapons and “common tasks,” which are voted on service-wide and change every year, he said.

“The skills I teach are the basic skills,” he said. He added that they are “basic, get-me-out-of-Dodge things” that could be needed, for example, by a group of engineers that accidentally became separated from their unit, and apply to all unit members, regardless of function.

“Training is something you should make interesting,” he said. “You can make it dry or you can go up there and make it exciting.”

His military experience helped prepare him to teach all those things and more.

He spent almost three years early in his Navy career near Vietnam, he said. For two of his three tours there, he was the chief diver for a destroyer squadron, operating from Laos, he said. It was during those years that he earned the Purple Heart, first on a list of his military awards and decorations, which fills a solid one-third of a page.

Between his Naval service and the beginning of his career with the Army, as a cavalry scout with the National Guard of his native New Jersey, he also spent a year in the Rhodesian army.

“I went to Africa looking for more wars,” he said, adding that he volunteered as an infantry commander there, with a unit that was fighting communist terrorists.

“I started off as a weapons specialist,” he said of the time just after his enlistment. “I have a knack for it…. I also have a knack with people. I can urge people to do what I need them to do, lead them. I have a good command voice.”

It was the second knack that revealed itself to his superiors during his career, opening doors for Laigaie into Army recruiting, where he also excelled. During a three-year stint as a recruiter, he signed up 150 to 300 percent of the target number he had been given, he said. One reason, he said, is that he was selling a “product” that he believes in.

“I do this not for the money,” he said. “I do it for flag and country.”

It also didn’t hurt that he had inherited something he called “Blarney-mouth.” “My grandfather could talk anybody into doing anything,” he said, adding that Army Reserve service is “a good deal, it really is. They just don’t know it yet.”

As part of Laigaie’s job with the 412th, he has also spoken to many local school groups about national defense.

“It’s to the point where, when I walk through a grocery store, (schoolchildren) say, Hey, there’s Master Sgt. Laigaie,'” he said.

“All kids can relate to having a bully on the playground. We’re there to make sure they don’t get beat up.”

Other activities Laigaie has helped organize for schoolchildren are teaching them the color-guard way to raise the American flag, having those with grandparents who served in the military ask them about their service and making Valentines for hospitalized veterans.

“My first objective is peace,” Laigaie continued. “I’ve studied war because it’s my job. If the enemy sees me training every day as hard as I can,” he will be less likely to attack.

“If he sees me with poor equipment and sloppy training, he’s going to think he can take me.”

Laigaie saw proof of that maxim on a unit level Vietnam, “and that’s how I look at the world,” he said.

And Laigaie has two children who are on active Army duty. His son, Pfc. Aaron Laigaie, is in Baghdad, Iraq, and his daughter Sgt. Andre Norville is in Korea. He also has a daughter, Margaret Catharine, living in Arkansas with her mother.

His wife, Lori, is retired from the U.S. Air Force. They plan to move, with their 11-year-old son, John IV, to Bellingham, Wash., shortly after Laigaie’s retirement.