Vietnam veteran becomes marriage mentor
Author's note: Joe and Janeen Masker were long time members at a Putnam County Church. In 2004, my wife and I were having some serious marital issues and thanks to the Maskers, we were able to see that there could be healing and reconciliation. The following is just part of their story as a married couple. My wish is that every young married couple can find mentors as wonderful as Joe and Jeanne especially in a time of personal crisis.
Joe Masker was born in Marmet, West Virginia, and went to East Bank High School, graduating in 1967. He started dating Janeen Orr and attended college at WV Tech. But by December 1968, Joe dropped out of Tech because he knew he was wasting his parent's money by living the party life and not focusing on school.
He went out to find a job and take his chances with the Selective Service. Just a month later, Joe got the dreaded letter that led with this statement: "Greetings and Salutations from your President, you have been drafted..."
Shocked by the efficiency of the system, Joe reported to the draft center three weeks later. His mother was extremely upset with him for dropping out of college and getting drafted. His new love, Janeen, was also less than thrilled by his decision.
When Joe reported to the draft center he met 11 other guys from Marmet, Chesapeake and Kanawha City. He knew many of these young men -- he went to school with them, had played baseball against them and saw others around town. They all got drafted together and went to basic at the same time.
Joe attended basic training at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina with 39 West Virginians. Collectively, they nearly composed a single platoon. Joe thought basic was intense, but he thoroughly enjoyed everything about it. His drill sergeant was a tough, 51-year-old African-American solider they called "Pappy." He could run backward as fast as everyone else could go forward.
In the fourth week, Joe went to the hospital with double pneumonia, needing to have fluid drained from both lungs. The mid-term PT test was coming up. An athlete and long distance runner his entire life, Joe easily passed the first PT test, but because of the illness he was told that he would probably be required to repeat basic training. Joe begged for the opportunity to try to finish with his class. He struggled but passed the final PT test and graduated with his platoon.
Joe was so enamored with the Army that he enlisted for a third follow-on year at Ft. Jackson. Once again, his mom was disappointed by his actions. She never understood that decision to sign up for another year and carried that hurt with her for the rest of her life.
Joe and 14 other West Virginians were the only men in his class to score as expert marksman. During basic they were reassigned weapons from WWII era M-1 to the M-16. He found it to be very accurate and light weight. He went to Aberdeen MD for AIT Fire Control Instrument Repairman. Joe learned to repair the sighting systems on nearly every weapon system in the Army, how to work on infrared scopes, and how to take a ballistic computer apart, zero it out and re-install it. He scored high in the electronic and mechanical sections of the basic aptitude tests during in processing.
He specialized in the sighting systems on the newest weapon system for the Army at the time, the Sheridan tank. Firing a HEP (High Explosive Plastic) and HET (High Explosive Thermal-plastic) rounds that were encased in cellulose housing, the Sheridan tank was designed for Vietnam because it was light weight and could even float using the tracks to propel itself over the water.
Joe and one other trainee were selected to learn about an experiential weapon 20mm Gatling gun known as the Vulcan. The Vulcan was mounted on a WWII-era tracked vehicle but could not be used against ground forces because of restrictions in the Geneva Convention. Joe was on hand for the first test firing of the gun. The target for the test was a WWII landing craft. The 120-foot-long landing craft was anchored in Chesapeake Bay. The Vulcan sounded like a jet engine unleashing a 15-second burst toward the ship. Looking like a red laser, the steady stream of bullets made a big upward arch in the air before descending onto the ship. When the mist subsided, the ship had literally been cut in half by the impacting rounds.
Joe finished AIT, went to ARVAN (Advanced Republic of Vietnam) training in Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri and awaited a flight to Vietnam at Ft. Lewis. Joe was convinced that he was going to die in Vietnam and had expressed that thought to Janeen. Literally sitting on the tarmac waiting to board a jet to Vietnam, a jeep pulled up and an officer read off 13 names; Joe's name was the next to last on the list. He left his buddies in line and found out that he had been ordered back to Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Most of the guys pulled out of the line were the only surviving sons of a family. He didn't know why he had been pulled out of line, but he was grateful nonetheless.
He called Janeen and they both cried. Later he called his mom and while she was happy that he wasn't going to Vietnam, she was still unforgiving of him. On the way back to Maryland, he thought long and hard about his life. He stopped for a couple of days at home and asked Janeen if he could speak with her minister. He spent a couple of hours with the minister and he accepted Christ and was baptized for forgiveness of his sins.
After the additional training at Aberdeen, he was assigned to Germany for the 703 Headquarters, A Company, 703rd Maintenance Battalion 3rd Infantry Division based at Larson Barracks in Kitzingen Germany. A new and improved Joe Masker walked into the temporary barracks determined to be a better man.
He was assigned a room and the Charge of Quarters Sergeant asked him if he was thirsty. Joe said yes, thinking water. The sergeant said "I recommend the Lowenbrau" pointing him towards the club. Joe thought one beer couldn't hurt but he didn't know that German beer has a much higher alcohol content than American beer and it is served in liter glasses. Two beers later, he struggled to make it back to his bunk.
The next morning, still woozy, Private Joe Masker was told to report in to the general. Shaking in his boots, Joe walked in and snapped a salute. The General offered Joe a choice since he was a qualified Fire Control Instrument Repairman, he could fill an opening with the armory group. Or he could be assigned to the shop office and be the driver for Captain Edward V. Schlaeffer. Joe said he would like to be a driver and the General replied "I will call Ned." The General called Captain Schafer telling him "I have a man who wants to be your driver."
Joe went to see the Captain and after reporting in the Captain had a simple question. "What makes you think that you are a good enough driver that I can trust you with my life?"
Joe replied. "Sir, I don't think there is anything that I can't drive."
The Captain used several words that are unfit to print. Joe paraphrased the Captain's comments down to this sentence: "You are an arrogant son of a gun."
Joe became Captain Schlaeffer's driver. The Captain's car was an old 1969 Chevy 4 door sedan painted Army green. It was the ugliest car Joe had ever seen. When he wasn't driving, Joe worked in the office as a clerk. If Joe wasn't driving or clerking, he had open access to every shop within the Battalion from small arms shop, fire control instrument shop, motor pool, radio shop, and fabrication shop. Because he was Captain Schlaeffer's driver no one ever questioned him when he asked to learn something.
Joe soon met Marshall Van Antwerp who was a track mechanic as well as small arms repairman. Joe requested to be assigned to the Grafenwoehr training center where the Army trained the Tank Commander's Qualification Course and allowed to work with Marshall. Captain Schlaeffer approved the request and the two men lived in their mobile shop trailer on the training range. It had a work bench on each side of the trailer with every type of part to repair everything from weapons, to radio, to binoculars and all of the heavy equipment vehicles. Joe and Marshall lived in that trailer 42 miles south of the Grafenwoehr Army base for six months, sleeping on the work benches. Periodically, Captain Schlaeffer would check in on Joe and Marshall and other times Joe would be recalled to Grafenwoehr to drive the Captain around.
In the back of his mind, Joe knew that standing between the US Army and the front line Eastern Soviet troops was his little piece of real estate on the Bavarian border. But he didn't spend any of his time in the field in fear of an impending Soviet attack.
"I was like a kid in a candy store. Just like basic training, I enjoyed my time in Kitzingen. When I was in the motor pool, there was always a need for someone to drive out and pick up a vehicle, I loved it. I drove everything from jeeps to a 25-ton tank retriever. It was 18 steps from the ground to the cab. I didn't have to drive them, I wanted to."
Joe got most of the experience driving the M-60 tank because of his friend Marshall. After repairing a tank, it was Marshall's job to test it ensuring it would operate properly. Marshall put the tank through a true field test and Joe learned by watching and later doing. It wasn't long before Joe could drive a tank through town and not crush any cars or hit any buildings on the narrow German streets.
Over the course of the next few months, Joe bounced from shop to shop working and learning new things. It wasn't long before he knew everyone in the company. Several times, the call went out in the middle of the night because there was an inbound aircraft loaded with broken and damaged weapons from Vietnam.
Agent Orange was a known hazard by that time so everyone was required to wear rubber gloves prior to handling a weapon. Many times, the weapons were still loaded with live ammunition. It was a very dangerous job to work with unexploded, live ordnance. The guns needed to be dunked into a chemical bath to neutralize the Agent Orange. Twenty years later, Joe's skin finally healed from the damage of handling the chemicals.
One of the downsides of always being on the go and working irregular schedules was that Joe did not have time to regularly get in his physical training during his work day. He tried to keep up his exercise program on his down time but that was soon replaced by the delicious German food and heavy beer. The gradual decline was noticed by Janeen, who was now his fiancé back home in the states. She saw a picture of Joe and asked if he had a pillow under his shirt. At the time, Joe carried 245 pounds on his 6-2 foot frame. He was determined to drop the weight. Joe mentioned it to a friend who worked in the pharmacy.
His friend gave him Dexedrine, which is a form of amphetamine. It was commonly prescribed by doctors as a weight loss aid. Without the supervision of a physician, Joe was left to his own devices as to when, where and how to take the drug. Joe's friend gave him a shockingly large supply of pills and an open invitation to get more anytime he needed them. Joe started taking them slowly at first. With no documentation and working a hectic schedule, Joe tried to remember when he last took his pill but he soon was taking them at an alarming rate. A couple months later, Joe went back to his friend for more pills. His friend should have known that Joe had consumed the six month supply too fast, but he gave him another massive quantity of pills. Dexedrine is highly addictive and mood altering when taken in high doses but it did suppress Joe's appetite.
Joe consumed them at a staggering pace; eating one every time he had a cup of coffee, a drink of water or a beer after work. Somehow, he was able to continue doing his work, never calling in sick, never having an issue driving, never making a mistake repairing anything, never sleeping, never eating and always in constant motion, it was a pace that he could not sustain. One night Joe couldn't sleep so he went to work at 2 a.m. His goal was to do the work for the entire shop by 8 a.m. so that his buddies could have the day off.
Captain Schlaeffer showed up to work at his usual time of 6 a.m. to find Joe well into the day. The Captain asked Joe what he was on, Joe said coffee. Captain Schlaeffer told Joe to get into the car and drove him to the base hospital. Told to sit down in the waiting room, the Captain went to find a doctor. After a short conversation, Joe was forced into the detox program, weighing just 135 pounds. Later they estimated that he consumed approximately 5,000 pills in a six month period. Doing the math, it was about 28 pills a day.
It took weeks to cleanse the drug from his system. He was surprised to learn that Janeen was in Germany to help him. Even after Joe refused to name the person who supplied him with the pills, Captain Schlaeffer never pressed any charges against Joe; he didn't submit any official documentation in Joe's records and never launched an investigation. Joe didn't care about his record, but he credits Captain Schlaeffer for saving his life.
Despite all the troubles, Janeen married Joe on January 16, 1971.
In September 1971, Joe went back to Grafenwoehr working as a radio repairman. During that time he had applied to receive an early out to return to college. He considered staying but he had hurt his chances for promotion because he didn't focus on his MOS as an instrument repairman.
"I have a touch of ADD and because of the distraction of so many things I wanted to learn, I never did my job. I thought the MOS Test would be for the shop clerk position but it was for an instrument repair course. He thought I did pretty good for someone who had not worked in his MOS for two years. But not good enough," Joe said laughing.
Joe left the service in December 1971. Captain Schlaeffer is now a hospital administrator and Marshall worked for the experimental division for GM before retiring a couple years ago. The three men have remained close through the years.
When asked if Joe had any advice to the younger generation, he said, "If you don't have faith, find it. It should be in the one faith, one baptism, one God. I have been through some real tough periods of life because God was put on the back burner. I caused myself and my family a lot of grief. Because of God's blessing and his hand in my life nothing horrible happened and kept me from getting in serious trouble.
"I think the mistake that most people make in this life is that they don't see the big picture. The scripture says that man is to live 3 score and ten which is 70 years. I am 65-plus. I have four years of life to reach that mark that is mentioned in the scripture. What am I going to do with the rest of the time in my life? I feel blessed to be alive all these years. Had I lost my life many years ago, I would have been lost in sin. But even when I turned my back on him, he didn't turn his back on me.
"I made plenty of mistakes because I am human. To be strong in your faith, you should work on your prayer life. We all hear about John 3:16. It helps me to remember that three times a day, I should pray for 16 minutes a day. Maybe it is a minute here and two minutes there. But it adds up and it will transform your spiritual life. I am not praying for things, I am thanking God for his blessings, for my wife, for my friends and family. It helps me to know that I am alive because he is alive in me."
Robert Akers is a husband and father who lives in Putnam County. An airline pilot by trade, he served 12 years in the West Virginia Air National Guard at the rank of Major. He deployed to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan among other foreign nations and was awarded multiple medals including three Air Medals, four Aerial Achievement Medals and two Meritorious Service Medals. He is a freelance writer for The Herald-Dispatch and the online magazine The Magill Review. He hosts his own blog and has been published in a collection of works including the Words for Warriors Project. He is working to complete his first fictional novel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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