Paul Kengor: Vietnam vet Joe Harrilla more than a number
Joseph G. Harrilla grew up in Sandy Lake, Pa., in the 1950s. His hero was GI Joe. He watched movies like “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” When Vietnam came, Joe wanted to get there as quickly as possible.
His first image upon arrival were naked dead bodies of Vietnamese. He was aghast as fellow Vietnamese walked over the bloated bodies, as if they were litter. “I wondered what kind of people could ignore such atrocities,” he said.
Nine months later, riding medevac helicopters into combat zones, he found himself doing the same.
So much death abounded that Joe was increasingly convinced no one was getting out of there.
Joe became a door gunner for the 170th AHC, Assault Helicopter Company. Barely 18, crewmates called him “The Kid.”
The helicopter missions were no joy ride. Harrilla was involved in not one but three crashes.
He never forgot the one on Oct. 29, 1967. Joe lost his best friend, Thomas Griffee of Rifle, Colo. He picked up Grif’s body bag. That one really hit him.
“Why in the world couldn’t he be here?” Joe would later say at a memorial gathering of Vietnam War survivors. “What’s really sad is nobody knows him.”
Joe cried only once in Vietnam — for Grif. The sergeant tried to convince Joe to get over it: “He’s only a number,” the sergeant said.
“He was only a number to them,” said Joe, “but to me, he was a really nice guy.”
Joe would lose more friends.
On Nov. 14, 1967, his helicopter went down in the Battle of Dak To. Joe alone survived, though hardly unscathed, physically or emotionally. He suffered spinal injuries, permanently affecting his gait.
His pilot, Larus Wayne Roland, 26, Portland, Ore., died in Joe’s arms.
Joe eventually got home and married his girl, Patricia. They had two sons. He was hired as a millwright at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works, eventually taking early disability retirement. He was racked by PTSD — nightmares, flashbacks, depression, anxiety. He wouldn’t leave the house except for work. “I was the best playmate the kids could have because I was there all the time,” he said.
He enrolled at Penn State for a two-year program in electrical engineering. He made it through. In May 1991, he graduated. But again, life wasn’t smooth sailing. Over the next 14 months, he sat through nearly 150 job interviews. It was USX that hired him again.
He slowly pulled himself together.
In 1996, Harrilla received long overdue recognition when given a Courage to Come Back Award, known as a Rocky Bleier award. Still, he didn’t want to talk much about what happened. The decades since Vietnam remained a struggle, recent years especially difficult.
Joseph G. Harrilla passed away on Aug. 7. He was 70 years old.
“He struggled the last two years,” says Joe’s son, Joe, thankful he spent time with his dad these last days, even as it was tough watching him deteriorate. “I really got to know him and confirmed what I always knew — he was truly a great man who despite all the obstacles never gave up. I find peace in knowing that he is now free from all the pain in this world.”
Free from the pain of this world, of Vietnam, and reunited with his buddies once again. He and each of them were more than a number.
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College.