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Joseph C.

Lessons from ‘Nam

Joseph Chavez was living the dream. The year was 1967, and he had just gotten hired into a full-time position with Texaco. He drove his ‘62 Chevy to the drive-in movie theater, met his friends at their favorite local restaurant, and tried to convince the girls that he was as cool as he appeared.

Joseph had just turned 19 years old. As he sifted through the mail, looking for birthday cards and sorting through the junk, one letter fell out and landed on the counter - the weight of the words inside heavier than the envelope that held them.

“Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction in the Armed Forces of the United States.” 

While Joseph was reading his letter, more than 300,000 American men across the country opened envelopes with this same statement inside. Few pieces of mail ever incited the same combination of panic, anticipation, and resignation as a draft notice.

For Joseph, his life was just beginning when everything in it changed. 

“I was a 98-pound weakling,” he joked, “I wasn’t cut out for the Army. But they sent me to Tiger Land (Fort Polk, Louisiana) for basic training anyway.”

Here, in addition to his regular training and preparation, Joseph learned about booby traps and tried to prepare for what might await him and his fellow soldiers when they landed in Vietnam. Only nothing could have prepared them.

As Joseph exited the packed C-130, all he could see were rice paddies and thatched roofs. Soon, all he would hear were sirens going off - all day, every day. 

At the beginning of his tour, Joseph served as a cook for a helicopter company. He was the first cook, the guy leading the rest of the kitchen, and he actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t what he thought he’d be doing - not by a longshot - but it wasn’t the worst thing. Then, one day, a few men came into the cook quarters and said they were looking for a machine gunner.

“None of us wanted to do that,” Joseph said. 

Unfortunately, they needed someone, so they got someone. Joseph was randomly selected (once again being pulled from one thing and into something else entirely, no matter what he thought about it.)

On his weekends off from cooking, he would be used as a machine gunner. This was around the time that Joseph’s initial view of simple rice paddies and thatched roofs changed to the dark sides of the war, the atrocities that are difficult to speak of some 50 years later. 

“It was just these young kids fighting this senseless war,” he said. “Sometimes, I stop and think about my buddies…and it’s just so sad.”

Joseph shared a little of that experience with us. He talked about the awful things he saw. The horrible events or acts that shaped so many lives - that took so many lives. He talked about his exposure to Agent Orange, how it was dropped to try and expose the enemy who were expertly hiding in the trees and brush. 

But then he paused and his tone shifted ever so slightly, his voice getting quieter and emotion-filled. 

“My experience in Vietnam also taught me a lot about value,” he said. 

“Our country is one of the only countries that will sacrifice our best - and we do have the very best. All of the men that sacrificed their lives, they were such good men. And it makes me so sad to think that we’ll never know what they could have done. What their impact on the world could have been. Because they all sacrificed everything in those fields.”

As he looked at their broken bodies, as he saw the faces of his friends and buddies whose lives were cut short, Joseph promised them that he would speak up for them - that he would do everything he could to help others understand what they had given. But it didn’t happen right away. He had to start with himself first. 

Like many men returning from Vietnam, Joseph was met with disdain and anger by many people. 

“The people here in the states were protesting,” Joseph explained. “I felt ashamed of my service and like I should feel guilty, so I threw my uniform in the garbage and tried to pretend like it didn’t happen.”

He also told us that in those first few years, the fighting in Vietnam wasn’t considered a war - it was categorized as a police action. That means the returning veterans didn’t qualify for treatments or benefits under the VA. So for years, Joseph’s anger and mental health difficulties were left untreated. 

“It took them a long time to realize we (veterans) needed help - a lot of it,” he said. 

When Joseph returned from Vietnam, the job he had started at Texaco as a young 19-year-old kid was still waiting for him. He ended up working there for 35 years before his retirement, raising three children with his first wife, then three more with his second. 

He kept his six kids close, spending as much time as possible with them, playing softball and going fishing. “I just always gave them my full attention,” he said. “I just loved being with them, and I think I came to appreciate the little moments even more than I would have.”

So, after Joseph fell and broke his hip recently, his kids were there to help him. He needed surgery to place a rod in his hip, and he still has a slight limp. But the worst part has been trying to swing his leg over the side of the tub to take a bath. 

He also needed some repairs done on his roof to prevent mold and other damage, and neither of those things was covered by the VA. So Joseph’s son - a contractor who partnered with Chive Charities on a similar project for a different recipient - encouraged him to apply for a grant.

With the support of our donor community - a group of people who are experts in seeing the value of helping others - we were able to fund those critical roof repairs and the installation of a new walk-in tub and accessible bathroom for Joseph. The total impact: $21,628.

Joseph never asked to go to war. He didn’t want to trade the landscape of southeast Texas for the rice paddies of Vietnam. But he served his country. He did what was expected of him, despite the enormous cost. And through that, he learned one lesson that lives with him today - the value of life. The value of the good men and women who sacrifice everything. The value of being there when others need it most, of speaking up for the voiceless.

We see that value, too. We see Joseph, and Gregory, and Ken, and all the other incredible veterans who risked it all for us, past, present, and future. And to donors like you who stand beside us to serve them in their time of need, we see you, too. Become one of them and DONATE HERE

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