War changed Joe.
It stripped him of all interest in leading people in any official capacity. Forever.
He has never been the same since coming Home, but he didn’t know that until years later when he was shaken awake to this harsh reality through a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) session on Vietnam.
They called Joe, “Philly” in the US Army squad he commanded. The City of Brotherly Love was his home, and many like him took on the name of their state or city while in the service. He was a sergeant, in charge of a squad of “grunts,” infantry soldiers who canvassed the “bush,” the jungle of Vietnam helicopter flight after helicopter flight.
Joe was a the type of leader that men loved to serve with — honest and compassionate, yet firm with a no-nonsense approach when a crisis called for it. More importantly, Joe’s men followed him because each knew from experience that Joe would not ask you to do anything that he would not have done himself.
That’s why Harris, a young recruit who heard of Joe’s military savvy, had asked to become a member of his squad, his “fire team.” “I made him my machine-gunner,” Joe recalled. In addition to carrying the heavy weapon, Harris packed a .45 pistol, a weapon generally handled by those not carrying an M-16.
And it happened one day that Harris had quietly approached Joe and told the sergeant he had lost the handgun. The squad were flown in by helicopter to a section where all dismounted and slowly spread out, marching nearly a half a “Klick,”( half a kilometer or 500 meters) before Harris discovered the loss and approached the sarge, confiding in him.
Joe did not want Harris to get into trouble for losing the military-issued weapon. More importantly, Joe said, he did not want the enemy to get their hands on it and use it against some GI.
And so, Joe ordered his squad to stand down and wait, as he and Harris made their way back through an untroden path, making their way back to the landing zone (LZ).
They found the gun!
And the VC (Viet Cong) found them!
Joe and Harris came under fire, being shot from some small arms from some unknown direction. They moved quickly, trying to retrace their steps away from the now marked area and get to the safety of the other men.
An unseen enemy sharpshooter, who had apparently lay in wait for the Americans, hit Harris. Joe saw Harris take the shot and the sergeant propped up the “younger man.” (Joe was all of 18 years old when he directed the lives of the “kids,” those new “in-country.”) Harris struggled, but with Joe’s help, both made it back to safety.
“You got a million-dollar wound,” Joe remembered telling Harris, as he helped to attend his wound. “You’re going home,” he added, trying his best to keep the injured soldier calm and relaxed, focused on something other than the pain that could too easily force him to go into shock. It worked. The young man’s injuries appeared to stabilize when a helicopter crew flew in to medevac him out of the field and to an Army Hospital . . .
. . . Where Harris died from his wound . . .
. . . Thus injuring a major part of Joe’s psyche . . . Joe’s soul . . . and his outlook in early adulthood.
Oh, Joe finished his tour just fine, getting out of the war zone one month short of a 12-month rotation. But he never felt the same way as he did in giving orders before the loss of Harris.
It haunted him in a way he only recently realized. You see, Joe has never sought advancement in any of the jobs or career paths he chose to follow after the war. “They wanted me to be a supervisor” Joe said of an assembly line work he once produced in a factory. Joe turned the position down cold.
Years later, while serving as a correctional officer in the prison system, Joe smiled and simply refused to follow the advice of others urging him to “put in” for sergeant. The same thing occurred while working as a sheriff, handling prisoners to and from the court room where I had met him.
Why doesn’t he apply for a higher rank, a higher position, courtroom employees wondered about Joe’s refusal to try to get more money and become sergeant. He was qualified, and, sometimes, he was actually doing the job of a superior officer.
The members at his Baptist Church in Philadelphia asked similar questions after Joe, time and again, politely refused to be named a deacon. He could not give an order from any official position, he said.
He could not bear the loss, the pain . . . the hurt . . . a person following his order could fall prey to, no matter how miniscule the risk.
One will never know what life Joe would have led had he not been stricken in war.You can only imagine after coming in contact with a guy like Joe.
You won’t see any of Joe’s injuries on first meeting him.
But they are there. They’re part of his PTSD.
And some wounds never heal.