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Now a son, soon a soldier

Times Staff Writer

Devie Olivas was having trouble focusing on the pastor’s sermon. Her thoughts kept coming back to her son Joseph M. Rankins.

“God, I have so much faith in you,” she prayed silently. “Why do I feel like my son is not coming back?”

She knew that the next day her 19-year-old boy would stand next to his 40-year-old father -- her former husband -- and swear into the U.S. Army.

Devie had asked her former husband, Gary J. Rankins, to talk to their son about the Army. Gary had been in the Army before and was reenlisting now after growing frustrated with his work with a delivery company.

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It was a story the news media, and the public, couldn’t resist: father and son enlisting together. But behind the scenes were a mother’s hopes and worries, and a newfound relationship between a father and son.

That Sunday at the International Pentecostal Church in Bellflower, Devie reached for the Bible next to her. She found the heading “God’s Promises” and a verse from Genesis.

The verse told of God stopping Abraham’s hand as he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac: “I swear by myself,” declares the Lord, “that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you.”

An ocean of relief washed over her.

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“God, I know your hand is on Joseph,” she prayed. “And you’re going to guide him and bring him home safe.”

Devie knew she had only 10 days before seeing her son off to basic training. She was going to try not to sob in Joseph’s presence.

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Gary and Joseph Rankins, dressed in matching “Army Strong” T-shirts, raised their right hands in front of a U.S. flag, cardboard cutouts of soldiers and a gaggle of TV cameras.

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The two smiling men were the center of attention as they swore in on July 14 at the Van Nuys recruiting station. Devie stood to the side, stepping up to the microphones only when asked to do so by a cameraman.

“What’s your name, ma’am?” a cameraman shouted.

“Devie Rankins,” she said. Then she laughed. “I’m sorry, Devie Olivas!”

She had been Devie Garcia when she met Gary Rankins at Huntington Park High School in 1984. They got together after Gary lent her an Army jacket he was wearing because she was cold. Using his nickname, Devie left a note in his pocket: “I love Joe Rankins.”

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Just before graduation, Gary decided to join the Army and left for Texas in 1986. Devie finished high school a year later and happily joined him at Fort Bliss. They married in 1987.

The Army put a strain on their marriage. Gary had to travel a lot for his job testing new air defense weapons.

By 1991, Devie and Joseph were back in Los Angeles, and the couple filed for divorce. Gary left the Army in 1994, in large part because he wanted to be back in his son’s life. He settled in Glendora.

In the years since, the relationship between Gary and Devie has been cordial but not close. Both remarried and had more children.

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When they talked, the conversations almost always revolved around Joseph. When their son wasn’t getting good grades or was acting up, Devie would ask Gary to step in.

So Gary was not surprised when Devie called on June 24, asking him to talk to his son about the Army. She knew Gary had recently decided to reenlist partly because he had always wanted to finish his career in the Army and partly because he was feeling stuck in his current job.

Devie told Gary that Joseph had quit his job with no other prospects. They agreed that the Army could give Joseph direction and discipline.

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Near a burned- out helicopter in a dusty clearing, father and son were pumping BB-like pellets into the magazines of their M4-style Airsoft guns. They were participating in a war simulation game organized by the Army at a dusty movie set in Santa Clarita. Men portraying Afghan insurgents were shouting “Allahu Akbar!” while running past blocky adobe houses.

Nearby, a sign announced, “Welcome to Hajistan.”

Sgt. 1st Class William Allen, the leader of the U.S. team, shouted, “Rankins!”

Joseph shouted back, “Which one? Senior or junior?”

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He looked at his dad with a grin. “Yeah, literally, you’re a senior!”

“Get your weapon and pay attention,” his dad snapped back.

The team-building exercise the Army had organized for new recruits and their families was a new experience for the father and son. They had never gone hunting or done anything military-related together.

They had gotten together sporadically over the years, meeting up about once a month.

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Gary was working long hours as he tried to advance in the shipping and distribution business. For a few years, he lived in Las Vegas and San Francisco. In the meantime, Joseph was hitting his first home run, learning to ride a bike and trying new tricks on his skateboard.

“I missed a lot,” his dad acknowledged.

In the last few years, they have started spending more time together, especially since they decided to join the Army together.

“We’re making up for lost time, I feel like,” said Joseph, whose restrained demeanor sets off his father’s exuberance.

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Gary, who is scheduled to leave for his refresher course Sept. 10, was excited to use the Airsoft game to show his son some of the things he had learned in the Army.

That day, when his dad barked, “Get next to the wall,” Joseph plastered himself against a facade.

Joseph couldn’t help but be impressed by his father. For one thing, Joseph hadn’t seen him run before.

“You know that saying ‘I’m too old for this?’ ” Gary said as he hustled down a dirt road. “Yup, that’s me.”

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“Ha ha,” Joseph said, catching up to his father. “I’m too young for this!”

In the computer room of her home in Whittier, Devie was carefully trimming family pictures.

“I’m just making them small so he can put them in his pocket,” she explained.

It was July 21 and Devie knew Joseph had to leave in a few hours for a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. The Army was putting him up until he could catch a flight to basic training in South Carolina.

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Gary was going to drive Joseph to the hotel.

So far, she hadn’t cried in front of Joseph. She even managed to hold it together days earlier at a goodbye pizza party as friends told her how proud they were of Joseph and how he would come back a stronger man.

“I don’t want him to leave and say he left his mom behind in tears,” Devie said.

On the day he left home, she thought about how she would miss seeing his goofy face, even miss cleaning up after him. She knew that if she ever felt worried about Joseph going to Iraq or Afghanistan, she could reread that passage in Genesis.

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She reminded herself that Joseph had become much happier since deciding to join the Army. He was becoming more responsible, too, getting up in time if he had to go to the bank or meet with a recruiter. And he was getting to know his father.

She had hoped to spend a little more time with her son in the days before he left, but everyone, it seemed, kept calling him or inviting him over.

So Devie busied herself making ziti with meat sauce as Joseph sprawled in the living room that last afternoon with his girlfriend, Vanessa Heffernan, 18, and his best friend, Stephen Bellairs, 19. Vanessa had her legs wrapped around Joseph’s waist.

Gary pulled up to the house in his Kelly green Jeep just after 3 p.m. to take Joseph away. Devie looked sad as he came through the door. She became a bit annoyed when Gary noted that she had had plenty of time to spend with their son.

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“No, I haven’t,” she said.

“It’s not my fault,” he shot back. “All you had to do is say no.”

Devie grimaced.

Later, Joseph carried his bags from his room to his dad’s car.

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He gave everyone long hugs. When it was his mother’s turn, she buried her face in his chest. She couldn’t help but cry.

She wiped her face and sniffled as she let go.

Father and son hopped into the car and Joseph flashed a peace sign as they pulled away from the curb.

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com


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