RICH KIPER: The privilege of knowing an American Joe

Rich Kiper
Rich Kiper

Doughboys, GIs, grunts and Joes are nicknames that have been applied to soldiers over the years. I had never heard the nickname “Joe” until 2002 in Afghanistan where it applied to infantry soldiers – those at the tip of the spear.

A few years ago a man wearing a RANGER T-shirt was walking along a beach where I was relaxing in my chair. He had been an Army Ranger. His name was Joe.

After getting to know him, I asked to interview him about his time in the Army.

Joe had been a Ranger, a paratrooper, a Green Beret (Special Forces) and had been wounded in action. We could relate to all four of those experiences.

Ken Burns, in his Vietnam series, focused on veterans who came home with drug addictions and other very real problems. He neglected the stories of soldiers who came home and lived as husbands, fathers, professionals and businessmen.

This is the story of such a man – Joe the soldier, husband, father and businessman.

Joe was born and grew up in Akron, Ohio. At age 11 he became a golf caddy. Later, he and five friends worked as busboys at a local restaurant. In 1960 all five decided to join the Army. Their only motive was “we just wanted to serve our country.”

Joe did not tell his parents he was enlisting. He told me that he “never realized the pain my mother must have gone through.”

He completed basic infantry training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, advanced infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and airborne school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Initially, he was assigned to the 325 Airborne Infantry and then to the 504 Airborne Infantry.

While scrubbing pots and pans on KP duty at Fort Bragg, “a guy comes in and says anyone in here want to take the PT Test for ‘Sneaky Petes?’ He jumped at it to get out of KP and then asked, ‘What’s a Sneaky Pete?’ Answer: “It’s a new outfit they’re starting up.” Joe: “Who is starting it up?” Answer: “President Kennedy.” Joe: “All right. I’m in. So I got out of KP and reported to the 77th Special Forces Group at Smoke Bomb Hill.”

His Special Forces training lasted three weeks. He was then assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group and went to medical (aidman) and demolition school.

After being promoted to Specialist Four (SP4), he was selected for Ranger training. Because of his short time as a SP4, he had to receive a waiver. He graduated and returned to Bragg. Shortly thereafter his Special Forces team deployed to Germany and spent a short time at Lee Barracks in Mainz before moving to Bad Tolz.

An incredible coincidence is that my first assignment was to the 509 Airborne Infantry at Lee Barracks in Mainz.

In late 1961 or early 1962, his seven-man Special Forces team deployed to Vietnam. He deployed a second time in late 1962 and a third time in 1963. During those tours he made several cross-border reconnaissance missions with the Studies and Observation Group (SOG).On his last tour he sustained several bayonet wounds in hand-to-hand combat with the North Vietnamese and was evacuated to Japan to have his wounds treated.

Joe left the Army at the end of his enlistment and enrolled at Kent State University.

As a kid, he rode a bus to an all-boys high school. On that bus was a girl named Beverly who attended an all-girls school. They became friends, but did not date.

When Joe returned from Vietnam, he learned that Beverly was attending Akron University. They began dating and married in 1965. They raised three daughters and have four grandkids.

Joe opened a bar and then a restaurant specializing in Thai and Mexican food. Later he opened a beer/wine drive-through business. He also bought 600 acres upon which he built storage facilities. Except for managing the storage facility and spending time with his children and grandchildren, he is mostly retired now.

Joe’s story is that of many veterans who left the Army after their wars, worked hard, married and raised children and became members of a community. Rarely are they asked and rarely do they speak of their experiences. But, like Joe, they have served their country in ways that only a small percentage of Americans can fathom.

“Joes” walk the streets of our community every day, their experiences hidden from view.

Except for that RANGER T-shirt, I never would have had the privilege of knowing an American Joe.

Rich Kiper is a Leavenworth Times columnist.