An American Prisoner of War
"My friend Joe Labriola." Those four simple words still leave a pleasant taste in my mouth, even after having not seen Joe for forty two years. That may sound a bit strange to many, but I assure you that it is true.
In the course of one's lifetime we come into contact with thousands of people, and in reality only a few of those will be called true "friends". True friendship is not bound by time or distance. It ignores the reality of demographics, social status, ethnicity, or wealth. It is an intangible that few can explain and even fewer understand.
And so it is with my friend Joe and me. We met in the Marine Corp in the turbulent sixties, when being a Marine and going to or coming from Viet Nam was looked upon with great disdain by much of America's population. College campuses were awash with criticism of the American that wore a military uniform. And, as a result of the draft, many that were "forced" into uniform had the same anti-war sentiment, but were a little more reluctant to express their true feelings about military service.
Joe Labriola was not one of those. Joe volunteered to serve his country, and did so with honor and dignity, and, as it turned out, at great personal sacrifice. The United States Marine Corp viewed Joe's efforts, commitment, and patriotism as heroism, and honored him with a Bronze Star. And as a fellow Marine, I assure that in those days the Marine Corp was not in the business of handing out medals lightly. And I'm sure that in the Corp at least, the same holds true today. I am also aware that in some cases a Senator's son would get a medal for flying over Saigon in a commercial jet, or having his record book padded with events that never took place.
That was not the case with Joe Labriola! He was a volunteer Marine that performed his duties so honorably that the Marine Corp saw fit to honor him for his heroism. When I met Joe he already bore the scars of battle that plague him physically even today. Yet the Joe that I knew never once complained about his own scars, but he was quick to tell you about his fallen comrades that had sacrificed more than he.
This letter is being written as a personal insight into my friend's life, so that others who do not know this man may gain insight into his character. This letter is being written for a group of individuals that hold Joe's ultimate freedom in their hands, or at least so it would seem. Let me explain.
Life sentence from Viet Nam
I met Joe in the mid sixties, and he already had a life sentence. He was sentenced to live the rest of his natural life with the memories of fallen comrades that never got to see their families or the shores of our wonderful country again. He watched the mask of death wash over the faces of friends, and he knew that he would have to write the letter to grieving parents, a wife or a girlfriend. He would have to watch the med-evac helicopter fly away with the remains of what had been a close friend only moments before. And he would look into the faces of other friends and comrades in arms that he knew would probably suffer the same fate.
The imprisoning of Joe Labriola did not take place in Mass. in the seventies. It took place in countless rice paddies, jungles, and small villages thousands of miles away from the shores of the USA.
The prison bars were put in place by a searing hot branding iron of witnessing first hand events that he will still not talk about yet today. Events burned so vividly into the memory that he would never again be free of them. Joe didn't have the luxury of watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather show snippets of a war thousands of miles away while eating dinner with his family and discussing the politics of Viet Nam. He was eating C-Rations in a jungle and watching his friends die.
Not once did I hear him bemoan the fact that his body was still full of scars, bullet wounds and shrapnel. Not once did he seek pity for what had happened to him personally. Not once did we discuss the "justness" of American involvement in Viet Nam.
He was asked by our country to go and do a job that few want to do, and he did it with honor and with pride in his country and his uniform. Contrary to what some may think, servicemen and women do not talk as much about the right or wrong of conflicts as do civilians. The opinions of those with the most to lose are seldom seen as important as the talking-head "experts" on the twenty-four hour news channels.
Joe Labriola was one of the most upbeat people that I have ever met. A great friend and a joy to be around. Especially for a person that had sacrificed so much while getting so little in return.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Joe Labriola is a decorated hero. When the Marine Corp pins a medal on your chest, believe me you have earned it. But Joe was also given a life long sentence that, thank God, few will ever have to endure. He was sentenced to forever relive events that as grisly as they were, are sometimes necessary in our vigilance against evil. Yet he uttered no complaints or regrets.
One particular characteristic of my friend Joe was his honesty and frankness. He may choose not to discuss certain particulars of events in Viet Nam, but he would not lie about them. A bond exists between fellow Marines, and it can only be maintained by absolute trust. It is a quality sorely lacking in today's world of deceit at the highest levels.
So when he tells me that he is innocent of the crimes that have him in prison, frankly I believe him! That may sound naive in our cynical world of today, but it is the truth nonetheless. Knowing what happened to Joe in Viet Nam, and to thousands that have shared the experience with him, I have a viewpoint that is counter to conventional wisdom. Especially the thought process of the general public in the late sixties and early seventies.
War record used against him
It has been recorded that the prosecution made a big issue of Joe's war record in lieu of actually having any evidence. Going as far as saying that the Marine Corp taught him to kill, and that he was guilty merely because he was trained to kill and had done so in Viet Nam. Only someone with no war experience or understanding of the military would make such an idiotic statement. Civilians of that day, and probably yet today, seem to think that killing becomes easier when one has had to do it in a war.
Exactly the opposite is true! It is like the old adage: "To those who have never fought for it, freedom has a taste the protected will never know." Joe had done his duty, and in some lawyers eye, had done it too well. "If he killed before, he would find it easy to kill again" was the accusation. The Joe that I knew, after having returned from Viet Nam, had a greater appreciation for human life than most people will ever understand.
When you watch life slowly ebb away from a friend as you try to help him, you develop a very deep appreciation for the gift of life. Joe had that appreciation, and I'm sure he still does. The Joe that I knew looked at life and freedom as a very special gift, and he had had enough of blood letting. I'm sure that if anyone took the time to research such things, they would find that veterans that have actually been in combat are less prone to violence than civilians without war experience.
The Joe Labriola that I knew was an excellent, highly decorated Marine, in a time when being so was not very popular with most of America. The Joe Labriola that I knew was a great friend that had an incredibly giving nature, and he was looking forward with great enthusiasm to life after war. He was a man with a great wit, intelligence, and eagerness to learn. And as I understand, he has continued in his quest for knowledge even when denied his freedom.
Joe was a man that was fascinated with the world about him, and was looking forward to enjoying life and continuing his pursuit of knowledge. And as I understand, he got out of his beloved Corp because he was tired of the heartache associated with the death and injury to so many of his fellow Marines. As a recruiter during war time, one can spend a lot of time at funerals with grieving families. That softens even the toughest of men. If a decorated Marine gives up a promising career because he is tired of the death and pain associated with war, and he values life and freedom above all else, he does not sound like a candidate to do what he has been accused of, and incarcerated for.
I have been fortunate in my lifetime to have had several good friends. Some I have been in touch with regularly, and some, like Joe, I lost track of for awhile. But as I stated before, true friendship does not recognize the barriers of time or distance. And so it is with my friend Joe. Forty two years have passed very quickly, at least for me they have. And until just a few months ago, I had no idea where Joe was or how he had spent his life, as my previous attempts to locate him were unsuccessful. I thank the good Lord for "Google," as it was how I finally found him. And I thank those that believed in his innocence enough to set up a web site called "FreeJoeLab," and I beseech those with the power to do so to do just that: please free Joe Labriola, an American prisoner of war.
June 18, 2008