Riggs on his service: ‘I’ve had a good run’

Published 9:23 am Thursday, November 3, 2016

By Reuben Johnson Jr.

The Vicksburg Post

It was April of 1988. Jeff Riggs was on a training mission for the National Guard in Panama. Despite the 140 degree heat, he volunteered to extend his stay from two weeks to six weeks.

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Off duty, Riggs and two friends drove to the Bridge of America for some sightseeing. Dressed in civilian clothing, the three men took photos everywhere. Riggs noticed a customized blue van drive by but did not think much of it.

On the way back to camp, a friend tipped Riggs to a Panamanian roadblock. He detoured past a movie theater and there it was again — the blue van. Beginning to get suspicious, Riggs cut across a parking lot. The van followed and cut them off.

“The guy that gets out of the passenger side has an Uzi machine gun and I knew he had charged the weapon,” Riggs said.

The driver, armed with a Soviet pistol, opened the side door of the van and out popped an angry General Manuel Noriega, the dictator soon to be arrested and imprisoned in the United States.

That would come the following year, but already tensions were high because of allegations that Noriega had turned against the United States and turned to drug smuggling.

Noriega confronted a frozen Riggs and his friends. Riggs was not fluent in Spanish and that was the only language Noriega used until his final challenging words: “You want a piece of me?”

After Riggs declined the offer, Noriega drove off.

“This can’t be happening,” Riggs said. Noriega had been in hiding from the U.S. and had not been spotted for roughly six weeks.

Riggs and his friends drove off but were stopped again a few minutes later. This time, they were detained for a few hours under suspicion of spying.

“At that time, being older and more mature helped. It would have been a lot different if I had been a 19-year-old,” Riggs said.

Raised the son of a Marine, Riggs had always viewed the military fondly. He liked the discipline and the sense of patriotism that came along with it. He believed he was meant to serve and protect. He saw it as a duty, not a job. That is why he did not seem to blink even though he seemed to be deployed every time he turned around.

After all, Panama was not the start of his military career.

Riggs enlisted in the Coast Guard in July 1975, after graduating a year early from high school. Riggs’ Marine father had more than a little influence on the decision to enlist.

“My father told me that either the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard, at least you’ll have a dry bed and hot food. That was a true statement,” Riggs said. It was his Coast Guard career that hooked him.

After failing to get an assignment on the Mississippi River, Riggs did not reenlist in the Coast Guard. Instead, he joined the Army National Guard in Vicksburg. And wound up on that 1988 training mission to Panama.

Sure enough, in November 1990, he was deployed again. This time, it was Desert Storm. He was sent to Saudi Arabia and stayed until June of 1991. By then he was a sergeant.

“Knowing that they had chemical weapons was intimidating,” Riggs said. Other than that, the living conditions were better than what many would assume.

Housed in a vacant community created by the King, Riggs slept on marble floors and used restrooms that all had bidets.

His next deployment was in 1996 to Germany and then to Bosnia. By then, he was a first sergeant.

Along the way — before his training in Panama and his first deployment — Riggs had been elected justice court judge in Warren County. He served for nine years before resigning to become the undersheriff in 1997. He and his wife Sherry have four children.

They all learned to take deployments in stride.

“I think my family did quite well with the transition as the family has it hard,” Riggs said.

He later got a graduate degree in business administration at William Carey University in 2001.

When 9/11 happened, Riggs said, “I knew it wouldn’t be long that I would be deployed,” he said. He was ordered to Iraq for 13 months with the 168th Engineer Brigade helping to rebuild the country.

Almost a decade later, he was deployed to Afghanistan in August 2010 until July 2011. In Afghanistan, he managed logistics for the combined armed services.

Riggs still hadn’t had enough. Upon returning, he re-upped for six years.

Throughout his run as a serviceman, he has seen several changes.

This included seven changes in the uniform, the prevalence of women in active duty and the transition of payment via card, not cash.

Today, Riggs is in the 28th year of his marriage, a grandfather and still Warren County’s undersheriff.

After serving a little more than 40 years, Riggs plans to retire from the Guard in 2018.

“I’ve had a good run at it,” he said.

SPECIAL SERIES: This story is part of a series of articles featuring local veterans and their stories. The stories were written by journalism students from the University of Mississippi and is sponsored by Trustmark Bank.