Although Retail Services Spc. Peni Tovehi currently calls San Diego home, his first home was a small village in Fiji, where he grew up his grandparents and five first-cousins. And his journey to the from the South Pacific to U.S. 5th Fleet where he is deployed aboard USS Sterett was quite the adventure.
For Tovehi, time in the Fijian village was a “struggle.” Growing up, he walked to school barefoot because he didn’t own any shoes and he used plastic bags to carry school supplies because he didn’t own a backpack. By sixth grade, he was preparing meals for his family, washing their clothes, cleaning the house, and planting and maintaining crops on the village farm, all while attending school.
“When I think of my village, it makes me feel strong,” Tovehi said. “It motivates me to do better.”
The majority of Tovehi’s village didn’t have electricity, but one of his neighbors owned a generator and would frequently play movies for people to come enjoy. Tovehi, along with other children in the village, would clamor there to watch whenever possible. The film selection included several American war movies.
These movies inspired Tovehi to one day serve in the U.S. military. It was a goal that never wavered as time went on.. “I wanted to be like the people in those movies,” he said. As a teenager, Tovehi moved to the capital of Fiji, completed high school and pursued a college education in home design and carpentry.
Then in 2009, shortly after graduation, he took another step toward his goal of service and enlisted in the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, serving as a combat engineer. Even though he felt the training was “difficult,” he never considered giving up.
Two years later, during a peacekeeping mission in Egypt, Tovehi met his future wife online. She was a fellow Fijian who resided 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, he finally moved to the U.S and was collocated with his wife.
This move also made him several steps closer to a goal he had since he was a boy: to serve in the United States military.
The Path to the U.S. Military and U.S. Citizenship
“My goal became to join the best military force in the world,” Tovehi said. He set his sights on becoming a Navy SEAL and contacted a recruiting station shortly after his arrival, but there was still a challenging path ahead of Tovehi. As he completed the requirements he needed to join the U.S. military as a non-citizen, he also worked two jobs.
“I helped support my family by working at a grocery store during the day and as security guard at night,” Tovehi said. “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, as well as citizenship, that could ultimately lead to the SEALs. His next choice was to become a Seabee – a member of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions.
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 known as retail services specialist).
“It didn’t matter to me which one I chose as long as I got to join the Navy,” Tovehi said.
He enlisted and reported aboard the USS Sterett in 2019 following boot camp and A-School, where sailors receive technical training and learn necessary skills for their selected field.
Since then, Tovehi’s mission has been to become an invaluable member of the crew. He has earned several qualifications along the way to include Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist (ESWS), Enlisted Aviation Warfare Specialist (EAWS) and honor coins from Commander Andrew Koy, commanding officer of USS Sterett, and Capt. Todd Whalen, commodore of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 9.
Tovehi selected the retail services specialist rating, where he is responsible for the ship’s laundry, vending, stores and services. On the ship, he can be found supporting several other departments and evolutions, and 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 Spc. 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 USS Sterett brings him closer to becoming a U.S. citizen and affords him the opportunity to pursue 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.”
- This story originally appeared on Navy.mil. It has been edited for USO.org.
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