Retired Army Colonel Joseph Abodeely’s Website, Straight Talk with Joe, describes him as “a native Arizonan who has some strong opinions and ideas about his state, the nation, and the world.” Many of those opinions were forged in combat, both in the military and in the courtroom.
During Operation Pegasus, the April 1968 airmobile operation to relieve the besieged U.S. Marine firebase at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, he led the first Air Cavalry platoon that reached the firebase, after seven days fighting its way through.Since that time he’s served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and written policy papers that provided guidelines for U.S. military police worldwide. As a civilian, he’s been a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney. In addition to his Website, he had a radio talk show and a program on Phoenix Public Access Channel 98 for over 10 years.
Of Lebanese descent, he’s a past president of the Arab American Cultural Association in Phoenix. For many years, he’s served as president of the board for the Arizona Military Museum, an all-volunteer group dedicated to preserving the area’s military heritage from the days of the Spanish Conquistadores to the present-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On August 19, 2010, the retired colonel spoke with HistoryNet in an exclusive interview.
HistoryNet: You led an Air Cavalry platoon that was the first relief unit to reach the besieged Khe Sanh firebase in 1968. As you entered the firebase, you blew “Charge” on an old bugle. Tell us a little about your role in Operation Pegasus, and why you decided to sound “Charge.” (Col. Abodeely’s personal account, Breaking the Siege at Khe Sanh, appeared in the October 2010 Vietnam magazine. Click the link to read the article online.)
Col. (ret) Joseph Abodeely: I was the leader of 2nd Platoon, D Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade, 1st Air Cav. Our job was to do infantry missions—patrols, ambushes, kill the enemy by fire and movement. We worked south of Hue while the battle was going on there (during the 1968 Tet Offensive). When we got word we were going to Khe Sanh I was worried because I’d been reading about what was going on there, and I thought it must be hell on earth.
We landed at LZ Stud, on a mountaintop. We could see a river below and Arc Lights in the distance. (Arc Light refers to bombing strikes by B-52 Stratofortresses.)
I was senior platoon leader in the company, so our platoon frequently got tasked with some of the more difficult missions, but that day we were the last platoon in the order of movement. When the lead elements encountered heavy resistance, however, the order of march was reversed and we were airlifted to become the lead platoon in clearing the road to the firebase at Khe Sanh.Earlier we had found what was probably a regimental-sized bunker complex, but the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) had cleared out. There were lot of craters from the B-52s’ bombs, and several bodies with blood coming from ears and noses (from the concussions). We found stockpiles of weapons and equipment and an AK-47 rifle and this old bugle the NVA had used, which I took with me.
All the way in from that campsite to Khe Sanh was lined with bunkers. Now we were heading for the goal line—were they going to do a goal-line stance? But the last two miles we had no contact. When we reached the firebase, one of the Marines came out to shake our hands. We had been ordered not to go inside the wire yet, so we set up camp outside.
When we started into the firebase the next day, my company commander said, “Hey, 2–6 (2 = 2nd Platoon, 6 = leader), can you play ‘Charge’ on that?” I said, “Well, I played trumpet in high school. I can probably play it.” So I played “Charge” as we walked through the gate.
HN: You remained involved with the military until 1995. After earning a law degree from the University of Arizona in 1971, you were part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Didn’t you write some policy papers for JAG?
JA: When I came back from Vietnam, I thought I was done, but I got a letter from my “uncle” (Uncle Sam), saying, Boy, you still owe me some time. So I joined the National Guard. I was in the military police in the Guard and became a reserve officer Judge Advocate of 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade under the 82nd Airborne Corps, a rapid deployment force. Later in my Reserve career, I became Chief of the Law Branch of the Military Police Operations Agency at the Pentagon, a policy group for military police operations around world, under the G-3 (Operations) for the Army at the Pentagon.
I wrote a paper for the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) to make sure the Army had a policy for dealing with local police. During Desert Storm I was on active duty, and I did research and wrote an informational paper clarifying the role of the Army in prosecuting war crimes.
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HN: An event called Colonel Joe Abodeely’s Maricopa Arizona Base Camp is held on the first weekend in April every year. Explain to us what that is, and how you came to start it, please.
JA: It started long before I got involved. A medic from the 101st Airborne bought some property outside Maricopa, a small town between Phoenix and Tucson. It’s a rural area, out in the desert. “Doc,” as the medic was called, lived out there and had a kind of rally once a year in which he’d invite vets, mostly Vietnam vets and their families. They’d sit around telling war stories, drinking beer and swapping lies.After Doc passed away some others picked up the idea and moved the rally to a place a few miles from where I live now, to keep it going. They eventually lost the property in foreclosure. I called owners in California—this was when real estate was still cheap—and bought it, partly as an investment but also because I wanted to keep Base Camp going.
There was already electricity at the place. We put in a Vietnam bar, built a guard tower, and a stage with electricity. A vet with a backhoe dug out a place at the base of the mountain and we put in a shooting range. Each year in April, we have Base Camp and invite veterans from all wars. We get some of the younger guys, but vets of any war are kind of parochial. The World War II vets didn’t really associate with us Vietnam guys, either.
HN: Looking at some pictures on the Base Camp Website, it appears you draw more than just American vets.
JA: I’m involved with the Vietnamese community here. We forget that we went to South Vietnam to help the Vietnamese people; I know that’s why I went in. We bring these Vietnamese to the Base Camp, and when we run the American flag up the pole we also run up the flag of South Vietnam. They can’t fly that Vietnam flag anywhere anymore. It doesn’t exist. They lost their country. In October, a Vietnamese Buddhist youth group comes out and camps here.
It’s just part of my way of giving back. I try to help people that our government left in the lurch.
HN: Tell us a bit about your work with the Arizona Military Museum. What is the origin and mission of that museum?
JA: We’re an official Army Museum of History and are certified by the Arizona Historical Society. We’re open every Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4, September through May. The Arizona National Guard had set aside an old WPA adobe building, the largest adobe building still in continuous use in Arizona. We have a portion of it for the museum.
When I was in the Guard as a young officer, back in 1975, I went to a state Guard convention. Some senior officers were promoting the idea of having a historical society to collect memorabilia of the Arizona National Guard and Arizona military history. I joined and gave them some money, but didn’t think much more about it until I got a call in 1980 asking me to serve on the board. They screwed me—they made me president and they keep re-electing me.
I told the board—I was a major, and I had colonels and generals on that board—”We’re going to be a working board.” We tore out old bins, built this big room, brought in display cases. None of us get paid. We’re all volunteers.The museum’s displays start with the era of the Conquistadores, then the Spanish Colonial Period, the U.S. war with Mexico (1846–1848), and the California Column in the Civil War. During the Civil War, the governor got permission from the U.S. government to raise five companies to protect against Apaches. The 1st Arizona Regiment was made up mostly of Mexican and Maricopa and Pima Indian volunteers. It only lasted one year, and then the U.S. Army came out and fought the Indian Wars.
We cover the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, “On the Border” (Mexican Revolution of 1910)—my grandpa was in the 1st Cavalry during that border action. I have his helmet on one of the mannequins.
We may have one of largest Vietnam displays in country. There’s a Huey in the middle of it, and we’re working on a Khe Sanh diorama. When I started as president in 1980, Vietnam was as far as we could go. Since then we’ve added Desert Storm and other recent wars. I think Iraq and Afghanistan are going to make Vietnam look like the Quest for the Holy Grail, but I don’t put my opinions into those displays. You can damn the war but don’t damn the warrior.
(To view a slideshow of displays at the Arizona Military Museum, see the article by Peter Suciu on our partner site, ArmchairGeneral.com.)
HN: You have a Website and had a talk show and a TV program. What motivates you so strongly to share your information and opinions with the public?
JA: I have a high opinion of my opinion. (Laughs.) I’ve just been lucky to have a great deal of experience. When people talk about the military, saying we should do this, we should do that—well, I led troops in combat. I served as a JAG officer. I’m better equipped to talk about it than some professor or media personality.
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HN: Unlike most bloggers and talk show hosts, you’re not easy to pigeonhole. In one blog on your Website you say, “Our World War II veterans are heroes, but our Vietnam Veterans are our heroes, too, and our country needs to say so, often.” In another, written during the last presidential election, you wrote, “George W. Bush and his co-conspirators must be held accountable for their crimes in either a U.S. tribunal or an international tribunal or both.” You express strong opinions, but they don’t seem to toe any ideological line. Comments?
JA: I don’t even know what liberal and conservative mean anymore. I’m pragmatic. Some people would think I’m a bleeding-heart liberal and others think I’m a right-wing nut case.
I believe in war but pick and choose your wars. Do it when you really need to do it.
HN: Given your background in law and law enforcement—you were a state prosecuting attorney in Arizona for 15 years and later a defense attorney—we have to ask: What’s your take on the current immigration law controversy in Arizona?
JA: I think it’s purely political. There is no immigration problem. I live in a rural area where there used to be a jalapeno field. I used to see trucks going out there, immigrants picking jalapenos in 120-degree heat. Our people aren’t going to do that.
Our crime rate (in Arizona) is going down. Yes, there are immigration violations, but that is an administrative, not criminal, violation.
HN: Colonel, thanks for talking with HistoryNet. Anything you’d like to add in closing?
JA: I love this country and I’m concerned about where it’s going because a lot of people are uninformed. They can’t think critically. They often vote against their best interests. They need to put their religious and ethnic differences aside.
My religion is the Constitution. That’s what I believe in, and a lot of people are trying to take it apart.
Click here to read Col. Abodeely’s personal account of the week his platoon spent fighting their way through to Khe Sanh, Breaking the Siege at Khe Sanh, from the October 2010 Vietnam magazine.
To see a slideshow of displays in the Arizona Military Museum, see Peter Suciu’s article, “Arizona Military Museum: More Than Cowboys in the Military History of the South West,” on our partner site, ArmchairGeneral.com.
Gerald D. Swick is senior Web editor for HistoryNet.com, ArmchairGeneral.com, and GreatHistory.com.