The Wars of Joe Jenkins


This year's Christmas card highlighted God's amazing grace to our family throughout 2017, a message of hope I looked forward to sharing with my friend and mentor Joe Jenkins. A decorated Vietnam-era "grunt," in March Joe had lost Pat, his beloved wife of 50 years. But barely a week after that card was mailed, I received a tearful phone call from his family: Joe had died in early December. As his generation of Vietnam veterans begin leaving us, what lessons do they offer a country where less than 1% of Americans still serve in uniform? 

Surely the first is simple, heartland-variety patriotism. Joe's obituary pictured the tall, spare man I had known a generation earlier, an engaging natural leader who always reminded me of the actor Tom Skerrit. To those offspring of the Greatest Generation, service to country meant a corresponding commitment to family and community, a citizen-soldier tradition to which Joe happily returned after twenty years in uniform. His position in the family business was complemented by a three-decade legacy of community service, silent testimony of a leader who always led by example.

The second timeless lesson is courage, the matter-of-fact acceptance of being placed in harm's way. As a newly commissioned intelligence officer, I first met Joe in 1971. His Combat Infantry Badge and medals for gallantry were unmistakable proof of his courage under fire during two combat tours in Vietnam. In those days, it was common for an officer to begin an in-country tour with the news that he was replacing a classmate who had been killed the day before. "Good luck but get your gear out to the pad because the chopper is waiting."

The third lesson is perhaps the most difficult for civilians to grasp: Soldiers typically camouflage their courage with ironic, self-deprecating humor. Joe did this better than anyone, convulsing meetings with the inside joke that everyone else was thinking. His undergraduate degree gave "a whole new meaning to having a BS in Math" and his transfer from Infantry to Military Intelligence "was significantly upgrading both branches."

The fourth lesson from the Vietnam generation is a passion for accurate intelligence. Their war had begun with a grotesque ignorance of the country, its language, its culture and, above all, the tough, determined enemy they were ordered to engage. My career later allowed me to know more senior members of Joe's generation, generals like Colin Powell, Carl Vuono and Norman Schwarzkopf: All fully shared his perspective. Their growing influence helped to create the revolution in battlefield intelligence first displayed in Desert Storm and the American weapon of choice in every subsequent conflict. But my first lessons in those life-and-death realities were learned from a rueful and brutally truthful eyewitness: Joe Jenkins. Those insights were passed along faithfully to my soldiers, my cadets at West Point and my senior officer-students at the National War College.

 Another defining characteristic of the Vietnam generation is a fierce and uncompromising loyalty, particularly to their comrades-in-arms. The Jenkins family received one of their most moving tributes from Hao Van Vu, an 80-rear-old Vietnamese refugee now living in Australia. Calling Joe "my best friend," Hao met Captain Jenkins in 1966, when Joe was assigned as an advisor to the Regional Force unit Hao then commanded in Vietnam's central highlands. Forged in fire, their friendship became a brotherhood that survived the fall of South Vietnam. "When my two youngest daughters escaped from Vietnam to...Thailand in 1987, Joe immediately flew to...the refugee camp," to help re-unite them with family members living in Australia. He concluded: "Four generations of the Vu family will continue holding Pat and Joe's love and care in our hearts forever."

As a preacher's kid, I always thought that Joe's good works consistently out-performed those of many nominal Christians. But having survived Vietnam to set an example of personal leadership for a generation of future warriors, how had he handled the death of his wife and his own last battle? Like most of us, Joe wanted God on his own terms. So how had that worked out as his life ended?

Joe's sister-in-law Pamela provided the answer in funeral remarks that left no dry eyes within earshot. In his last months, Joe had made an all-important break-through, re-evaluating the conventional wisdom there are many pathways to God and many ways to get there. Instead, Joe had placed his faith in Jesus, not just as a Really Nice Guy but as his Lord and Savior, a certainty that made all the difference.

Personally, I think Joe heard those dust-off choppers riding once again to his rescue: But this time inbound for his new home in the Mansions of the Lord. 

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Colonel Ken Allard is a widely known commentator on foreign policy and security issues. For more than a decade, he was a featured military analyst on NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. That experience provided the backdrop for his most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War. 

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