Juan C. Aranda Jr. is set to be awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for his actions nearly 57 years ago at a ceremony at Moffett Field on July 15.
Mary Alice Reid, a neighbor and 15-year friend of the 78-year-old, said she isn't surprised — even though she only learned of Aranda's tale recently. "He is a very modest man," she explained on a recent sunny day, sitting in front of Aranda's home on Farley Street.
The fateful day
Back in August of 1956, Aranda, then a radio operator for the Air Force, was stationed in his native Puerto Rico. Hurricane Santa Clara was bearing down on the island and the young airman was growing increasingly worried about his family. When he heard a broadcast over the radio reporting flooding near his family's home, he made a decision that some might call rash.
Aranda and a fellow airman went AWOL — breaking curfew and leaving their base without authorization — to go check on loved ones in the nearby town of Aguadilla. As it turned out, Aranda's family was safe, but on the way back the two men encountered the father and his three sons trapped by rising water and hanging on to a palm tree, with water rising all around them.
According to Aranda, the decision to jump in after the man and his boys came just as easily as his decision to leave the base. In fact, he said, it wasn't much of a decision at all. "It was instinct," he said.
Although going with his gut is now resulting in an award, at the time the decision almost got him booted from the Air Force. Instead of facing a court martial, however, Aranda ultimately was honorably discharged in 1961 and told "the wheels are rolling for an award" for his brave actions.
But that award never came. Although Aranda periodically inquired about it and even the Voice in 2000 wrote about his forgotten act of heroism, the Air Force never reached out to formally recognize Aranda for risking his life to save four others.
That is until Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo got wind of the story and got the long-stalled wheels rolling again toward officially commemorating Aranda's act of bravery.
When Aranda heard what Eshoo had done, he said he was "flabbergasted."
Reid, on the other hand, said she was far from surprised.
"To a lot of us, he's been a hero all along," Reid said, explaining that her neighbor's noble spirit was apparent from the first time she saw him interacting with kids at nearby Theuerkauf Elementary School — where, according to Reid, many of the children came from homes without a father.
Aranda provided a strong and positive male presence in the lives of many young kids, Reid said, and he was always willing to listen and help when parents came to him with a problem. "He's been a positive force for good in this community for the 15 years I've known him," she said.
Taking a look at Aranda's resume, it would be hard to argue otherwise. He's coached local Little League baseball, helped with the city's recreation department, been a youth mentor with a Restorative Justice program in Mountain View and served on the Whisman School Board and the Mountain View Whisman School Board.
In 2002, two years into his term as an Mountain View Whisman district trustee, he had to step down in order to focus on his battle with prostate cancer. But after beating the disease he got right back on the metaphorical horse. Today, Aranda volunteers as a Spanish tutor in his neighborhood and as a Spanish-to-English translator at the local RotaCare clinic. He also teaches salsa dancing lessons at the Mountain View Community Center.
When it comes to helping the kids, Aranda said that experiences in his life — a father who died young and the fact that he didn't get a chance to raise his daughters — have made him especially aware of how disruptive it can be to children who grow up without a dad. He said he wants to do all he can to make sure other children don't suffer as a result of being fatherless.
But much of his enthusiasm for helping the community has a much simpler explanation. "This is me," Aranda said with a shrug. "It's the only way I can explain it."
Aranda will be presented with the Air Force Commendation Medal on July 15 at 3:30 p.m. at Moffett Field. The ceremony will be hosted by Rep. Eshoo, the Department of the Air Force and the California Air National Guard's 129th Search and Rescue Wing.