November 11 — Veterans Day — was not a holiday Darrell Roberts, who served in the Marines, typically embraced with fondness.
“The only thing Veterans Day used to mean to me was a reminder of all the friends I’d lost for senseless things,” Roberts said.
“But this time it’s about growth and how things have changed. Finding peace has been the biggest change. I’m not that same angry, bitter man that I was.”
Roberts is one of 19 military veterans whose faces can be seen on banners hanging from streetlight poles in the City of San Fernando. The banners, which have been displayed since May, will come down at the end of the month and given to the honoree or their families.
Roberts, still a fit and imposing figure at age 64, was nominated for his banner by Mayor Sylvia Ballin. She had met him when he wanted to become a Community Emergency Response Team member, which assists the City’s Public Safety Department in the event of an emergency, and took a liking to him.
Still, Roberts said he had to be talked into accepting the honor, not only by Ballin but also his family members.
“To me, I didn’t want people thanking me for a decision I made,” Roberts said. “People think, ‘you’re courageous, you’re patriotic.’ No. I joined the Marines to travel, have adventure, and meet interesting people. I was young.”
But Roberts, who came to live in San Fernando in 2014, said he is now grateful for the recognition from his adopted city. It’s helping him, he said, to continue letting go of the angst from the repercussions caused by the bad decisions he’s made over the course of his life.
Having Trust Issues
Roberts was born in Detroit, but his family moved to Philadelphia when he was a year old. At the age of 12 they moved again, to New Jersey.
Roberts said he’s always had “trust issues” (that he wouldn’t describe) as a kid and later on as an adult — especially with authority figures. Yet he was determined to join the Marines when he finished high school, despite having a college athletic scholarship offer.
“I was absolutely sick of school,” Roberts said. “It was one time when my father (James Roberts, Jr., who served in the Army) was absolutely right; he told me, ‘you’re so fired up to join the military, go to college first, then go in as an officer.’ But at the time I thought, ‘nobody likes officers, I’m not gonna wait.’”
His enlistment in the Marines began in June of 1975. After basic training he was assigned to the National Security Agency, sometimes referred to as “No Such Agency” because of its secretive work for the US government.
“Being in the NSA at that time felt like a combination of ‘F Troop’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ — this was the 70s,” he said. “But at the same time it was groundbreaking because every branch had its particular job.”
In the NSA, Roberts, trained as a machine-gunner and small weapons specialist, said the Marines were “basically the hired muscle,” in charge of infantry security during secret operations.
But, “I met some of the best people I ever met in my life from all over the country when I was in the Marines,” he said. “It was the best thing for me because, it taught me a lot in general of how the world works. I am grateful for the deep education that I got through being assigned to NSA. Being in the Marines and the NSA took me to another, exponential level.”
Unfortunately, his mother Josephine died in August of 1977. Roberts, who had already served more than two years of his four-year enlistment, was given the option of taking an early honorable discharge. He left with the rank of Lance Corporal.
His tactical training provided the foundation for the various security and protective jobs Roberts would do in the private sector. And those life lessons learned would help carry him through tough times.
But after leaving the military, Roberts would also make some life decisions that would haunt him as a civilian.
Some of those bad decisions revolved around romantic relationships, Roberts said.
For example, Roberts said, he became romantically involved with an older woman — who had three children — in Baltimore after being discharged. He used his VA benefits to buy them a house and moved in with them. But when the relationship crumbled, Roberts left, giving them the house.
His tactical training helped him find work off and on in private security, as a bounty hunter, and also as a nightclub bouncer. He was working at the Baltimore club and restaurant one night when he helped defuse a confrontation. People who worked for actor-director Charles Dutton, who was in Baltimore preparing to launch the HBO miniseries, “The Corner,” saw Roberts handle the problem and offered him a job as a security supervisor, escorting actors to and from the set.
One of those performers was actress Kandi Alexander, who went to further fame from the network television series “CSI: Miami.”
“She is also a very talented professional dancer — ballet, all that stuff. And one of the toughest women you’ll ever meet,” Roberts said. “She’s (5-feet, 4-inches), but she can outdrink some men I know.”
During the series run in Baltimore, Roberts said he became involved with Alexander’s hairdresser. When the series ended, she convinced him to move to Los Angeles in 1999.
That relationship didn’t last. But a love affair with California blossomed.
“California was the first place I ever lived that I miss when I’m not here,” Roberts said. “That had never happened before and I’ve lived all over this country.”
His Friend Bobo
In March of 2013, while driving on the streets of Los Angeles, Roberts spotted a homeless man he knew as Cuba. The man had a dog with him that was emaciated except for its left leg, which was quite swollen.
“Cuba” tied the dog to a fence and entered a convenience store. Roberts pulled up into the parking lot.
“It was pretty hot that day,” Roberts recalled. “I had some water and a bowl in my vehicle. I filled the bowl and gave it to him. He drank it dry. He then laid his head on my foot, and gave me a look that said, ‘please help me.’
“It touched everything in me. I’ve always loved animals and I’ve always loved dogs,” Roberts said. He talked “Cuba” into giving him the dog and then took it to a vet. The leg was seriously infected from a stab wound, and the vet said the animal might not even survive going under anesthesia.
“I told him, ‘let’s see what happens.’” Roberts said. “I’m not a religious person; even that night I didn’t pray. But I said to myself, ‘however this works out, this is how it’s going to be.’”
The dog survived and Roberts, who named him Bobo, helped nurse his new pet back to full health.
The two are inseparable.
“I guess it’s that innate ability of dogs to have unconditional love,” Roberts said. “I was a natural born cynic, and everything else I’d gone through in life had sharpened that. But Bobo took those rough edges off of me. He reminds me to focus on certain things. If I’m focused on him, I’m not stressed about other things. There are people I know who are scared of dogs but they just love him. And he seems to know it.”
Moving to San Fernando
Roberts — whose security work was severely curtailed after suffering a bad fall in 2010 — said he had to get past one last bad life decision: investing time and money into a failed business venture that left him broke.
In 2014, after his savings ran out, he and Bobo were staying in hotels or shelters. At first he didn’t want to tell his family back in New Jersey of his plight, but eventually did so, and they gave him enough money to get back on his feet. Then he learned about the senior and veterans housing available in San Fernando. He was able to qualify for a one-bedroom apartment where he currently resides.
“When I got here it felt like the kind of town I grew up in New Jersey — a small town,” Roberts said. “And even though I was born and first raised in big cities, I like small towns.”
He lives quietly in the city. He and Bobo enjoy daily walks and occasional drives. He notes, wryly, that Bobo “understands” both English and Spanish when they greet friends and neighbors.
His anger and restlessness are gone. He said at last he feels contentment.
“Having peace in your heart — that’s one of the best things about anything,” Roberts said. “When I had given up on ever having peace, that this was just how things were and I had to deal with it, that’s when I started finding it.”
Because, sometimes, that too is “how the world works.”