What happens when a soldier dies in combat? On June 2, 1969, one month short of his 21st birthday, Joseph Guy LaPointe Jr., a conscientious objector and a U.S. Army combat medic, was killed by an enemy grenade on Hill 376 in Quang Tin Province in the Republic of Vietnam. When his unit was attacked, he ran through automatic weapons fire to reach two wounded men at the head of his patrol. LaPointe continued to treat them even after he was shot twice, and he shielded them with his body. In January of 1972 he was posthumously given the Congressional Medal of Honor for “gallantry and selflessness.”
LaPointe was also awarded the following: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Medal with one star, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Combat Medical Badge and Combat Infantry Badge.
This Miami Valley of Ohio hero has several military installations named in his honor: a health clinic at Fort Campbell (Ky.), a medical heliport at Fort Benning (Ga.), and an Army Reserve Center (Ohio). Those traveling on Route 49 in Montgomery County (Ohio) may note the Joseph G LaPointe Memorial Highway.
Those are the fact. Is there more? What about the grieving father? The widow? The son he never held? And how do I as a teacher of modern American literature introduce my students to the voices of those who opt to write about war as well as those directly impacted?
As I flip through LaPointe’s “Individual Deceased Personnel File,” provided me by his widow, Cindy, I begin to learn more than is revealed in the LaPointe Wikipedia article. A June 24, 1969, letter to the “Adjutant General” Casualty Branch Depart of the Army from LaPointe’s father seeks answers: “Was he separate from his platoon? Where exactly was the hostile force encountered? What were his wounds? Were there any witnesses? Who identified the body?”
I continue to examine pages and think of Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s award-winning book The Things They Carried, and I scan LaPointe’s “Record of Personal Property: Combat Areas” to note his list: a class ring, a warranty for a Norelco razor, a light meter and film, retaining bands for the braces on his teeth, and a smoking jacket with tie. To the astute reader this is so revealing: he still carried fondness for Northridge High School; he’ll never need to use the lifetime warranty on his razor; he planned to film this adventure; he was a kid having his teeth straightened; and he aspired to be a man and wear a fancy jacket. Did the New Testament he carried provide him comfort? Were the “dirty and stained PFC stripes” which were destroyed as worthless worth the war?
Vietnam veterans have radically different points of view about the war as is the case with all wars, of those who fight and those who observe. I have an obligation to my students to provide them with opportunities to make their own decisions; therefore, LaPointe’s widow, his son, and retired Master Sergeant Ken Williamson (whose duty was to report the deaths of soldiers to their families) will be in my classes on Tuesday, sharing their stories. I hope this becomes a memorable experience for my young students, another building block as they work to continue their educational process.
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