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The Red Sea is a long way from Fiji, where Retail Services Specialist Seaman Peni Tovehi grew up in a small village with his grandparents and five first-cousins.
Tovehi is also thousands of miles from the place he now calls home, San Diego, where the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) is homeported. Tovehi has had a unique journey from the South Pacific to U.S. 5th Fleet where he is deployed aboard Sterett as part of Carrier Strike Group 11.
Tovehi said that his time in the village was a “struggle.” Growing up, he would walk to school barefoot because he didn’t own any shoes, and used plastic bags to carry school supplies since he did not own a backpack. By the time he was in 6th grade, Tovehi prepared meals for his family, washed their clothes, cleaned the house and planted and maintained crops on the village farm, all while attending school.
“When I think of my village, it makes me feel strong. It motivates me to do better,” said Tovehi, who cooked over an open flame with firewood and a kettle because the majority of the village didn’t have electricity.
One neighbor owned a generator and would frequently play movies. Tovehi, along with other children in the village, would clamor there to watch whenever possible. The film selection included several American war movies.
“I wanted to be like the people in those movies,” said Tovehi, who said that the films inspired him to one day serve in the U.S. military. It was a goal that never wavered as time went on. As a teenager, Tovehi moved to the capital of Fiji, completed high school and pursued a college education in home design and carpentry. Shortly after graduation, Tovehi took another step toward his goal of service and enlisted in the Republic of Fiji Military Forces in 2009, serving as a combat engineer. Tovehi recalled the training as “difficult” but never considered giving up.
Two years later, during a peacekeeping mission in Egypt, Tovehi met his future wife online. She was also a Fijian native, but residing in the United States. The two married in 2013 and maintained a long-distance relationship while Tovehi completed his enlistment with the Fiji Military Forces and finished the necessary administrative requirements to relocate to the United States. In 2017, Tovehi finally made the move to the United States and was collocated with his wife. He was now also closer to accomplishing his goal of joining the military force he sought to serve since childhood, one that had evolved in adulthood.
“My goal became to join the best military force in the world,” said Tovehi, who set his sights on becoming a Navy SEAL. There was still a challenging path ahead of Tovehi. He contacted a recruiting station shortly after his move to the United States but worked two jobs while he completed the requirements to join the U.S. military as a non-citizen.
“I helped support my family by working at a grocery store during the day and as security guard at night,” said Tovehi. “I would usually get around three hours of sleep every night. It was pretty rough, but it was normal for me because I grew up with a lot of struggles.”
A road block seemingly halted the motivated would-be recruit. Tovehi was not eligible to apply to join the Navy as a SEAL because he was not a U.S. citizen. No stranger to overcoming obstacles, Tovehi looked at other avenues to join—and citizenship—that could ultimately lead to the SEALs. His next choice was to become a Seabee. He waited nine months in the delayed entry program as an undesignated seaman, but a quota did not become available. He was given the option to continue waiting or join one of two available rating choices; culinary specialist or ship’s serviceman (now retail services specialist).
“It didn’t matter to me which one I chose as long as I got to join the Navy,” said Tovehi, who enlisted and reported aboard Sterett in 2019 following boot camp and A-School. Since then, Tovehi has made it his mission to become an invaluable member of the crew and has earned several qualification along the way to include Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist (ESWS), Enlisted Aviation Warfare Specialist (EAWS) and honor coins from Cmdr. Andrew Koy, commanding officer of Sterett and Capt. Todd Whalen, commodore of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 9.
Tovehi selected the retail services specialist rating, and in this primary role he is responsible for the ship services of laundry, vending, stores and services. Throughout the ship he can be seen supporting several other departments and evolutions. He is a member of the force protection team and serves as a crew-served weapons gunner. As part of the air operations team, Tovehi secures embarked helicopters on the flight deck. He is also currently serving as a food service attendant (FSA).
"He motivates every FSA here," said Logistics Specialist 1st Class Luis Campos, the mess decks master at arms. "He motivates me every time I see him. He does flight quarters late into the night and then still gets up for breakfast and serves people with a smile. He's one great Sailor."
Tovehi’s work aboard Sterett continues to bring him closer to becoming a U.S. citizen and provide him the opportunity to attempt his ultimate goal of serving as a Navy SEAL. Tovehi understands it will not be an easy journey, but that has never stopped him before.
“You should never give up on anything that you do,” explained Tovehi. “It’s all in the mind. Push beyond your limits.”
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