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Joe Hooper

November 10, 2013

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of 1918, a peace treaty was signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France. In subsequent years, November 11 was known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. At precisely eleven o’clock in the morning on that day, people in many parts of the world observed two consecutive minutes of silence. The first minute was to remember the 20,000,000 people who died in the war. The second minute was dedicated to the grief-stricken loved ones left behind after the war. In many American cities and towns, the ringing of church bells followed the two-minute period of silence.

After World War II, the name was changed to Veterans Day in the United States. The day honors all American veterans who have ever served our country.

I have frequently used this occasion to write about the stories of veterans. Included were those from my own family. Others were famous for their heroic action under fire. Hollywood films have depicted such stories, including that of Sergeant Alvin York. Born in a two-room log cabin in Middle Tennessee, York became a celebrated hero of World War I.

Last year I wrote the story of Lieutenant Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II. The column about this son of a cotton sharecropper from Kingston, Texas, was well received.

A few days after the story was published, I received an e-mail from a reader who wondered why I had never written about Captain Joe Hooper. The reader encouraged me to research his story, stating that Hooper was largely unknown because he served in the Vietnam War. I gathered that the reader was himself a Vietnam veteran.

I did as the reader suggested and learned the story of Joe Hooper, gleaning much of my information from a Wikipedia article.

Captain Joe Ronnie Hooper was born August 8, 1938, in Piedmont, South Carolina. When he was a child he moved with his family to Moses Lake in the state of Washington.

Hooper enlisted in the United States Navy in December 1956. After graduation from boot camp in San Diego, California, he served as an airman aboard USS Wasp and USS Hancock. He was discharged in July 1959, after being promoted to Petty Officer 3rd Class.

Joe’s desire to serve his country led him to enlist in the United States Army in May 1960 as a private first class. After basic training in California, he volunteered for Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  He was promoted to corporal and began a tour of duty in Korea with the 20th Infantry in October 1961.  He was promoted to sergeant. After two years in Korea Joe was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas. A year later he joined the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and was promoted to staff sergeant in September 1966. Though Hooper volunteered for service in Vietnam, he was assigned to Panama.

In December 1967 Joe Hooper was deployed to Vietnam.  He returned from duty and was discharged in June 1968. He reenlisted in the army in September and served from July 1969 to August 1970 in Panama. Joe requested a second tour in Vietnam. In December 1970 he received a direct commission to Second Lieutenant. In April 1971 he returned to the United States. After taking the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, he was assigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Despite wanting to serve twenty years, Joe Hooper was forcibly retired in February 1974 as a first lieutenant. As soon as he was released from active duty, he joined a unit of the Army Reserve’s 12th Special Forces Group in Washington State as a company executive officer. In February 1976 he transferred to the 104th Division, also based in Washington, and was promoted to captain in March 1977. He was discharged from the service in September 1978.

Captain Joe Ronnie Hooper is the most decorated soldier of the Vietnam War. His combat decorations surpass those of Alvin York in World War I and Audie Murphy in World War II. He was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration for valor in combat.

During two tours of duty in Vietnam, in addition to the Medal of Honor, he was awarded two Silver Stars for gallantry, six Bronze Stars for heroism, eight Purple Hearts, and the Combat Infantryman Badge. He is credited with 115 enemy kills in ground combat, twenty-two of which occurred on February 21, 1968.

Deeply distressed by the anti-war politics of the time, Joe began drinking excessively, which contributed to his death at the age of 40. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 6, 1979. Captain Hooper, originally from the Upstate, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

I offer here the story of Joe Ronnie Hooper as a tribute to his memory, but there is a more compelling reason to remember Joe Hooper. Joe represents all United States veterans of the Vietnam War.

Most Americans are well aware that World War I and World War II united the people of this country. The war in Vietnam, however, had the opposite effect, dividing the country along political as well as ideological lines. Veterans of the Vietnam conflict have not been afforded the same encouragement and appreciation that veterans of other wars experienced on their return to America. Hollywood films like those featuring Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo give an accurate depiction of the way Vietnam vets were received.

Shane Edwards was a good friend from my seminary days. He entered divinity school after serving in the United States Marine Corps as a reconnaissance officer in Vietnam. Shane dreaded going to sleep because he regularly experienced nightmares.

In the nearly forty-eight years of pastoral ministry since I first knew Shane Edwards, I have encountered many veterans who continue to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I have conducted funerals for Vietnam veterans who died from complications inflicted by Agent Orange. The casualties of that divisive war continue.

On this Veterans Day we salute all of those who served in any branch of the military. This year, in particular, I express gratitude for those who served in Vietnam. The war was controversial during a difficult time in this country, but that does not diminish in the least the service these vets rendered.

Thank you, Joe Hooper, and thank you to all who served in that horrible war.

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2013
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