Early this past March, a stately looking, silver-haired, eighty-three-year-old man quietly passed away in the small, Mayberryish town of Highlandville, Missouri. He was known, by his neighbors and the fellow parishioners at his church, simply as “Joe.”
“Joe’s” passing was routinely and unceremoniously noted in a small, eight line obituary which told us very little about “Joe”
the man. He was survived by his beautiful and intelligent wife, of over a half century, Anne. Unmentioned, were the four of his five children and a number of grandchildren who he had also left behind.
The obituary also mentioned that, per “Joe’s” wishes, there were to be no funeral services. This last bit of information seemed most telling for a man who spent his life putting others before himself – God, County, family and the million plus different soldiers he commanded over the course of his stellar career as one of the Army’s top officers. Yes, not everyone seemed to know that, “Joe” the humble farmer in their midst, was once a four star General who commanded all US Army personnel in the Continental United States.
Born, during the depths of The Great Depression, on November 10, 1931 was
Joseph T. Palastra, Jr. Little is publicly known about his childhood. The record for “Joe” begins in 1954 when he graduated, with distinction, from the United States Military Academy at West Point. With handsome features a thatch of thick dark hair, “Joe” was respected for his high intelligence, work ethic and integrity. As a young Army Lieutenant , already considered a rising star, “Joe” was selected, with a group of other promising young officers, to be loaned out to the CIA for service in Vietnam in 1955 – some ten years before the deployment of combat forces there.
Still in his early 20s, “Joe” spent his time in Vietnam learning about the people, their culture and politics. This would serve him well in the following decade when he deployed for three tours in Vietnam-including two as a unit commander.
In the late 1960s, during two of his three tours, “Joe” commanded Company B, 4th Aviation Battalion as well as the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry respectively. By this time, the war had grown unpopular. Most of the soldiers were draftees. Many didn’t want to be in country. Drug use among the soldiers in Vietnam was rampant. Morale was low and, in some units, soldiers rebelled against their officers. In some cases, unpopular officers and Sergeants were murdered by their own troops in a practice known as “fragging.”
Many incoming unit commanders, under the circumstances, were reluctant to fully assert their authority and maintain high standards and discipline. Not “Joe.” Palastra believed that if one were “placed in charge he must take charge.” “Joe” was not afraid to “take charge” and restore discipline where needed. The first unit he took command of in Vietnam was an important combat aviation unit that he would later, and understatedly describe as “not functioning well.” As the incoming commander he had zero tolerance for disobedience and was unwilling to look the other way like many other commanders were doing. He insisted that his men adhere to the highest standards while he and his soldiers aggressively pursued the enemy on the battlefield. When he left his command, his aviation unit went from being one of the worst in its sector to being one of the best.
In 1969, when “Joe,” then a Lieutenant-Colonel, took command of the 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry, that unit was functioning much better than most. Yet, through leading by example and setting the highest standards for himself and his men, he transformed 1st Battalion from a good unit into a great one that could be relied upon to accomplish the most challenging of missions. What “Joe” knew was something that many other officers in Vietnam didn’t appear to grasp: Soldiers actually prefer to be part of a well disciplined and accomplished unit led by officers who set high standards and who actually care for them.
After his time in Vietnam, “Joe” had accumulated an impressive array of accomplishments and awards including eight Air Medals, Three Bronze Stars for Valor and the coveted Silver Star Medal. Even more important, he established himself as a superb combat leader.
That period from the middle 1970s to the early to middle 1980s, known in the Army as “the post Vietnam era” were some of the Army’s darkest days. The military was unpopular with most Americans. In the wake of Vietnam, the Army’s budget was drastically cut and commanders lacked the necessary amounts of fuel and ammunition to conduct adequate training. Standards were low as was soldier morale. Racial tensions and violence were rampant throughout the Army. The military was unable to attract significant numbers of quality recruits. It was not uncommon for young civilian men, who were charged with felonies, to be offered the opportunity to serve in the Army in lieu of a conviction and a prison sentence. While not as prevalent as in Vietnam, there still existed, among a large portion of the lower enlisted ranks, a culture of disobedience and disrespect toward their leaders. In this post Vietnam era, many fine officers chose to leave the Army. Fortunately for the Army and our nation, “Joe” chose to stay.
Continuing to excel in his new role as an officer in the peace time Army of the 1970s, Joe was promoted to Colonel and selected for Brigade command in the famed 101st Airborne Division. As during his previous stint as a unit commander, “Joe” was lauded for the measurable improvements to his brigade’s morale, performance and readiness. Few were surprised when “Joe” Palastra was promoted to General and later given command of the US Army’s 5th Infantry Division.
Yet it was in the early 1980s when “Joe,” now sporting three stars on his collar, took command of the 60,000 plus soldiers in the US Army’s I Corps at Fort Lewis, Washington. The election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th US President brought many changes to the Army which received, once again, adequate training funds as well as the complete modernization of its inventory of equipment, weapons and vehicles.
Still, the soldiers continued to be influenced by the post Vietnam culture. Standards were still relatively slack and discipline was somewhat lacking. “Joe” come onto Fort Lewis like a whirlwind and immediately raised the bar. It quickly became clear to all under his command that “Joe” wasn’t fooling around. He expected the highest of standards and would not suffer those hapless souls who were content with mediocrity. His soldiers would speak of him as “being everywhere.” A Company standing around on the side of the road, on base, in an aimless cluster, might very well see their Corp commander pulling over in his vehicle to take charge of the situation and impart an important and forceful lesson to the unfortunate Captain who commanded the unsightly company. A Military Police Commander drew “Joe’s” ire when he decided to punish an overweight and sub-standard Military Policeman by placing him on duty, at night, on the front gate. “What?” He snapped incredulously at the cowering MP commander. “Any soldier you assign to the main gate is the first impression most will have of this post and you assigned this man?!!!
It seemed as though nothing happened in I corps which escaped notice of General “Joe.” Once a soldier driving a 2 1/2 ton truck in convoy down I-5 took off his helmet
(A major safety violation) and began to eat a Big Mac (another violation) – the next day, the soldier’s commander was made to answer for it. General Palastra didn’t believe in micro-managing his subordinates. He did, however, believe in micro-monitoring everything in his command.
General “Joe” loved all of his soldiers but his Military Police had a special place in his heart. They were his eyes and ears and the agents who helped him transform I Corp into a highly disciplined organization through enforcing the high standards he set. It was said that he even monitored the Fort Lewis MP’s police scanner. When his MPs complained that they were being brow beaten by officers that they pulled over for traffic infractions, “Joe” gave his military policemen some special guidance. From that day forward, things changed and the interaction with disgruntled officers who were ticketed went something like this:
Angry Officer: “This is #%**+# – you can’t do this to me!”
MP: “Sir, if you wish to file a complaint I have been ordered to give you the name and phone number of my boss.”
Angry Officer: “Yes, #%!?%%# I have a thing or two I’d like to say to him. Give it to me.”
MP: “Sir, My boss is General Polastra and he insists on hearing about complaints right away. His phone number is———-.”
It always worked to diffuse the situation and Needless to say, General “Joe” never received and complaints.
Leaders in the Army and the Department of Defense recognized how “Joe” was able to make drastic improvements to the morale, professionalism and proficiency of the soldiers under his command. It seemed a natural progression in his career when he was promoted to four star General and tasked with turning around the entire US Army within the continental United States when he was made commander of the US Forces Command in 1986.
“Joe” knew we were overdue for a war – maybe in Europe or maybe in the Middle East. He had witnessed, first hand, how poorly trained and unprepared soldiers do in combat. He was determined to make sure that the hundreds of thousands of soldiers under his command were ready for anything that could be thrown there way. Using the same formula that had served him and his soldiers so well in the past, he took to transforming the bulk of the US Army. Always an advocate of higher recruiting standards, he saw a much higher caliber of new soldier enlisting for service. Singularly possessed to effectuate change, some would accuse “Joe” of being a “hard ass.” Yet, as a General Joe was was almost universally admired by his men. From his earliest days as a Lieutenant to the twilight of his career, as a four star General, “Joe’s” soldiers knew his drive was not selfishly motivated by his own career advancement but, rather by his love for and desire to see his soldiers become the best they were capable of being.
To most, having such responsibility for so many soldiers might seem like a daunting task. Yet, “Joe” enjoyed the privilege of being able to bring out the best in so many young people. In an interview, he summed up his experiences thus:
“I went to Atlanta to Fort McPherson. I was in charge of 18 divisions, 275,000 active duty soldiers and another 350,000 U.S. Army Reserve Units. I was also responsible for training and mobilizing 430,000 National Guard members,.”
On his retirement, General “Joe” Palastra left a US Army that was unrecognizable from the Army he served in both during and in the years immediately following the Vietnam War. No small part of the credit goes to him. Through it all, he could always count on the support of his lovely wife Anne, his equal in spirt and intellect, who was always there to improve the Army community of wherever they were stationed and mentor and comfort young Army wives all they while raising five extraordinary children who went on to become accomplished in their own right.
Shortly after his retirement, “Joe’s” beliefs in a future war were confirmed when in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait which lead to the first Gulf War. It might have helped the career of the Commander of US Forces in that war, General Norman Schwarzkopf, that his previous assignment had been to take over command, of the recently whipped into shape I Corps, from General “Joe.” Undoubtedly “Joe’s” amazing work with I Corp would later also reflect positively on Schwarzkopf.
Then, as Forces Commander, “Joe’s” second great gift to Schwarzkopf were the hundreds of thousands of well trained and highly motivated soldiers he had prepared for their eventual service under Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War.
If anyone ever doubted that “Joe” Palastra was a humble man, all such doubt was removed after his retirement from the Army when he and Anne settled in a small community in rural Missouri to take up a quiet and near anonymous life as simple farmers and active church goers. With “Joe” his work was done and there was no jockeying for political appointments, media commentary gigs, or cushy defense contractor positions.
As a civilian he never made much out of his Army career to others in his community and was content to be simply addressed as “Joe.” “Joe’s” career and Army retirement spanned a period in our history before the Internet and thus, there is little today to document his life and career online. Yet, to those who served with and under him, his legacy lives on in their hearts and memories.
On March 3, 2015 General “Joe” Palastra went before his maker. Undoubtedly his maker said unto him:
‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Matthew 25:21
See you on the high ground sir!