MIGHTY 25: Ruben Ayala is on a quest to be the good in the world
Ruben Ayala thought he’d join the Army to see the world and use the time to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Turns out, it was a lifetime of service to a country he feels gave him everything.
“I grew up in Puerto Rico raised by my grandmother and single mother who joined the Army late in life just to get us off the island and create a future,” he explained. She didn’t even speak English very well. I got to see the genesis of what it was like to join the military, not out of any sense of patriotism but as a sense of opportunity, even though my forefathers fought in every conflict back to the Revolutionary War.”
Ayala’s mother left him with his grandmother while she completed basic training and got to her first duty station. Then she sent for him and he’d spend the rest of his life growing up in the United States, learning English as a child. His mother inspired his desire to put on the uniform.
“When it came time for me to look to go into service, the mentorship I got from my mother was to stick with an MOS that would translate after the Army. I took her advice initially and was a legal specialist in the reserve,” he shared.
It was 1996 and Ayala felt like it was the most boring job in the Army at the time. But a few attorneys in the unit began encouraging him to strive for more.
“That led to me going to college and getting involved in the ROTC to become an officer,” he said. “Then I did exactly what my mother told me not to do and went into the infantry.”
Shortly after, Ayala deployed when America went from peacetime to war. Attached to the 82nd Airborne, he attended Ranger School in between deployments and earned his Airborne tab. In 2005, he was invited to selection before making it through the qualification course to become a Green Beret.
“My fluency in Spanish helped a lot and I was attached to 7th Special Forces Group,” he added. “The amount of work that SOCOM is asking SOF to do around the world is a lot and there's a constant rotation. It's a fast-moving train that you're on, when you are in that world and it just doesn't stop.”
In 2012, Ayala was ready to hang up his uniform. He applied and was accepted into the University of Texas for its executive MBA program. “It was nice to be part of a tight cohort and build a network outside of the military. Essentially I had to deprogram myself and become something new,” he said.
When he graduated from the program, he opened a healthy vending machine company. It was doing incredible business and prior to the pandemic, Ayala had 100 machines operating. Most were on school campuses. When COVID-19 mandates shut schools down, his business went with it.
“Within a week, I lost 90% of my revenue. I had to do mass layoffs and it was the absolute worst-case scenario,” he shared. “It taught me more lessons of grit than anything that the military could have ever taught me because at least with the military on a bad day on the 30th you still get paid.”
Despite the stress and hardship closing the business would create, it led to something new by joining forces with three veteran friends.
Triple Nikel has gone from an idea for a diverse and different type of veteran apparel to having a deep and abounding following in the military community. The name itself pays homage to the men who came before them. Derived from the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment that stood up in 1943 during segregation. Known as the "Triple Nickels," their mission was to neutralize forest fires through airborne insertions.
He’s coming a long way from being a young kid who aspired to become the next Puff Daddy and actually met Notorious B.I.G. in 1995 before trading that dream for service. “It’s probably why I was such a terrible student in high school because all I wanted to do involved hip hop,” Ayala laughed.
Getting picked up by Khols and military exchanges is just the beginning for this do-good and feel-good-centered business.
“I definitely feel like we’re advocates and use it to give voice to those who feel unheard. We come from a legacy of people counting on us,” Ayala said. “We’re also set on setting trends with music, art and community. If we aren’t amplifying something or inspiring people, that design gets rejected. I know we have people looking at us to do great things. I want to make sure we aren’t wasting that faith and trust.”
To learn more about Triple Nikel, click here.