Thoughts this Memorial Day
This is a revised version of a column that ran last May 1.
When we think of the graves at Arlington National Cemetery or, closer to home, at Camp Nelson National Cemetery, we think of folks who died in or as a result of combat, or a training accident.
I’d like to tell you about a serviceman who passed away in another fashion.
As most of y’all know (mostly because I play the Veteran Card on a regular basis), I served in the U.S. Navy for six years and four months, after which I was honorably discharged with two rows of ribbons and a just-finished bachelor’s degree. I worked with and was led by some marvelous people in boot camp, ‘A’ school in Indianapolis, and while posted at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Naval Training Center in Orlando.
My favorite fellow sailor was named Joe Richter, with whom I worked at the Navy Broadcasting Service in Gitmo for a little less than two years.
I hate using past tense when I speak of or write about Joe. After more than 26 years, you’d think I’d be accustomed to it …
Joe grew up in Iowa, but despite that, he was perhaps the funniest person I’ve ever met. (Transplanted Iowans: I’m just joshing. For all I know, there may be more comedians than corn stalks there.)
Joe roomed next-door to me in the enlisted barracks in Gitmo. Like me, he didn’t plan on making The World’s Finest Navy a career. In fact, we were scheduled to be discharged within months of each other.
I immediately noticed two things about Joe: He had the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard - if you walked into a room in which Joe was laughing, you’d begin chuckling even though you didn’t know the punch line. Also, despite being nearly two inches shorter than my 6’3,” his post-up moves on the basketball court gave me fits. He played good defense and was a great passer and, while I enjoyed playing against him, I much preferred being on the same team.
While we were in Gitmo, Joe married Valerie, a fellow Navy journalist. After leaving Gitmo, he joined Val in Washington, D.C. I don’t recall whether they planned to have children right away, or after they left the Navy and began their civilian careers, or at all. I did know, then, that they’d be together forever.
Val’s mother lived in the Tampa area, and in 1991, Joe took a mother-in-law break and drove up from Tampa to visit me. After a beer-fueled league basketball game I told Joe I simply had to play in, we went out for a bite and another beer or two. Joe was especially hilarious that night, and we had a fine time, and after crashing at my place, he drove back to Tampa.
I never saw him again.
Shortly afterwards, he was sent to one of the Navy Broadcasting mobile detachments on, I believe, a Greek island. Before being deployed, Joe and Val noticed a blue spot on one of his legs, but didn’t think much of it, or maybe Val did and Joe didn’t -- I dunno.
Not long after he began his scheduled short deployment, I got an urgent call from a friend of Val’s. Joe was in a hospital, having trouble breathing. They suspected pneumonia.
It wasn’t pneumonia. It was a blood clot in the final stages of a trip to Joe’s heart and lungs, and it killed him.
It took Val years and help from a congressman’s staff to discover Joe’s true cause of death, including the fact that he hadn’t been given the mandatory physical exam before being sent overseas. She also suspected he hadn’t received the best care in the hospital; that a proper diagnosis and round of blood thinners might have saved his life.
Joe Richter was 26. I’d planned on being his friend the rest of my life.
Joe was only a few months older than me, but I looked up to him. In Gitmo, he was the sort of popular, tough, mature guy I wished I could be.
A few years ago, my buddy Dave converted my Gitmo outtakes reel from VHS to DVD. On it, you can see people pranking each other and messing up on-air and all sorts of funny stuff.
My favorite bit is a clip that begins with Joe looking at a world map and lampooning our news director, in his voice, then bursting out with that incredible laugh after someone tried to eat an old hard-boiled egg and nearly gagged. It’s possible that a few naughty words were issued – we were, after all, sailors – and you’d sorta have to see it to understand exactly why it’s so funny.
Twenty-six years later, I still think of Joe all the time. He wasn’t a war hero, but in some very important ways, he was sort of my hero. On this Memorial Day, and others, I silently thanked Joe for his service. I thank him for his friendship most every day.