Joseph LaPointe, III, was born on Jan. 20, 1969, and his father, a combat medic, conscientious objector and Medal of Honor recipient, Joseph “Guy” LaPointe, Jr., died on June 2, 1969, on Hill 376 of the Quang Tin Province in Vietnam.
We seek to understand our fathers: those who steadied the bike as we learned to ride, taught us to bait a hook, examined our report cards.
Joe says that after high school he volunteered for the Army because “I wanted that connection with my dad, wanted to know what the Army was like. I met the greatest and closest friends I’ve ever had in my life. We did the regular stuff: rifle qualification, physical fitness tests, and we learned to work as a crew member.”
Joe trained at Fort Sill, Okla, in field artillery on a multiple-launch rocket system, learned about his vehicle, how the computer system worked, how to solve mechanical problems by doing role playing as if he were in the field in a situation where the truck or the ammo malfunctioned.
In regard to war zone deployment, Joe indicates, “I think no one ever wants to be deployed to a war zone. It was the last thing on our minds. Desert Shield started three months after I got out.”
He reflects on growing up and the reluctance of family members to talk about his father: “I realized around third or fourth grade that my father was deceased. I first learned about my father’s story when I went to downtown Dayton for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At the ceremony, they read his Medal of Honor citation. This started a life-long process of learning about him.”
In school (Joe graduated from Kettering Fairmont in 1987) when he had a choice of a topic for a report, he always chose Vietnam. Joe says, “I was trying to figure out the Whys: Why did we go there? Why were returning veterans treated so poorly? Why did Dad go there? Why was he killed there? The list of Whys was endless.”
After the Army, Joe contacted his dad’s closest childhood friend, Raymond, “Two Crows” Wallen to whom he had been introduced when he was 13 or 14.
Joe learned from “ Two Crows” that Guy was a young man with a big heart who would go out of his way to help others, that he was authorized at age 16 to hunt and trap on government property for research and wanted to be a park ranger, and that he was a stand-up guy who loved people, plants, and animals.
Guy had an old Opel and he and “Two Crows” hiked in southern Ohio. As staunch supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, they drove to Mississippi and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to Louisiana where they marched with Malcolm X.
Back to Joe.
Planning was missing from Joe’s life. “I grew up with Mom not knowing how to plan. Dad was the planner, and once he was missing, Mom was lost.”
The planning came into place for Joe and his mother, Cindy LaPointe Dafler, in 1998 when a member of Guy’s unit in Vietnam Fernando De Perris called and inquired, “Have you ever thought about going to Vietnam and seeing where Guy was killed?”
Their ready response was, “Yes.” And so the planning began with passports, visas, inoculations, and itinerary.
Joe says of the trip in 1999, “I was winging it, but it was like an awakening, being reborn. I went in knowing nothing and came out knowing my dad, the type of person he was from the men who served with him. We would sit up late at night, and the men would tell stories about Guy patching up little kids and making friends with the locals. I learned that the Army didn’t shape him: he was already shaped. He was a ‘deadeye’ marksman even though he was a conscientious objector. I didn’t learn this until ten years ago.”
The first part of the trip to Vietnam in 1999 was “touristy,” but Joe says, “ I didn’t feel like a tourist. I was there on a mission: to go up Hill 376 and bring back the souls of the five who were killed that day and put them to rest.
“And we did on June 2, 1999, thirty years to the day they were killed. I was overcome, blown away, bawling like a baby, not a dry eye on the hill that day.”
Joe and Cindy sat on the huge boulder near where Guy and four members of his unit were killed and others had taken cover. De Perris had made rubbings of the five names on the Vietnam Wall in D.C. As Joe read the names, Cindy set the rubbings on fire. Joe says, “It was a powerful moment. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted. We had released their souls and let them have peace. We brought them down from the hill and home with us.”
After that first tour, Joe and Cindy needed to come home and recuperate. The second trip to Hill 376 was in 2000. Where the first time was a mission, according to Joe, the second time was designed to “delve into Vietnam, to learn more about the culture, to be a learning tourist.”
What Joe learned was that it was a “poor country, very sad,” and that “the people were friendly.” He noted with the sightseeing that there was a generation gap, that people his mother’s age were missing with “lots of very old” and “lots of very young.”
This summer, Joe and Cindy went to the B Troop reunion at Fort Campbell, Ky. They had gone since 1998 to meet and converse with Guy’s buddies, and this time they took relatives. Joe reports, “All of my dad’s friends who are still alive treat me like I’m their son. Their numbers are getting thin now, only three from his unit this time at the reunion: Dave Martin, Jim Matthews and Jerry Smith.
Does Joe want to return to Vietnam? Yes. His granddaughter Hanna, 16, and a student at his old high school, Fairmont, has been asking to go since she was ten years old.
Note: There is extensive information on the Internet about Guy as well as a video on YouTube of the trip in 1999 entitled “Return to Vietnam_Healing on the Hill” in which the narrator indicates the production is a “story of promises, forgiveness, renewal, and healing.” www.youtube.com/watch?V=vMJ7n4f6q6c
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.