Chattanooga veteran Joel Blake ‘just wanted to serve’

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Veteran Joel Blake at his home in Chattanooga on Wednesday, November 2, 2022.

At first glance, it might appear Joel Blake liked being a soldier so much he went back for seconds -- and thirds.

The Copperhill, Tennessee, native joined the U.S. Army in 1967, right after graduating from Copper Basin High School. Twenty-three years later, as a 41-year-old in the National Guard, he was deployed in Operation Desert Storm.

And in 2006, at 57, he was deployed once more, training for four months at Fort Bliss, Texas, then spending 12 months in Iraq.

"I was the only one in my family (to serve). My father wanted to (serve in World War II), but he was 4-F because of his eyes," Blake said, referring to the classification code the military used for someone not qualified for service.

Blake said he enlisted in 1967 with the idea of being a radio operator. He took a job placement test, but a recruiter told him his scores pointed in a different direction.

"I went to a five-week school and became a window clerk in an Army post office," Blake said. "(That recruiter) probably saved my life because, back then, the radio operator usually stood right next to the platoon leader. It was a dangerous job."

Blake said he underwent basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He recalled that he and his mates got an unexpected day off to make way for actor John Wayne, who was shooting "The Green Berets" there. He eventually went to Vietnam, where he said he ran the post office at Camp Red Devil out of the back of a truck.

"I'd sleep in the truck sometimes," he said, "and one night I woke up hearing people yelling, 'Blake! Blake!' They were in full uniform and helmets, in a trench, when a rocket or mortar hit an outhouse about 100 yards away and blew it up."

Blake came home in 1970 and enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He said he was discharged from the Army in 1973 and earned a degree in elementary education in 1975.

After teaching for three years in his native Polk County, Blake spent eight years working at Chattanooga's Orange Grove Center. He said he also worked in insurance and private security before joining the Army National Guard in 1985.

"I trained one weekend a month and two weeks in the summertime at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi," recalled Blake, who added that he finally got to do what he'd wanted to in 1967 -- become a radio operator.

Blake said he served six months during Desert Storm, mostly in Basra, Iraq. After that he took a security job, then accepted a post in 2000 at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Georgia. He took a leave when his Guard unit was called up in April 2006.

"I didn't think I was too old," Blake said.

Having trained as a radar operator, Blake served in Baghdad at two forward operating bases or FOBs -- Anaconda and Falcon. One fateful day at Falcon, he said, he and his team were monitoring radar as usual.

"The Iraqis liked to fire (bullets) into the air to celebrate," he said. "When radar picked up things like bullets, they showed up as yellow. If they didn't turn red, we didn't worry about it. If something turned red, a warning would go out to the entire FOB."

An incoming rocket that should have turned red didn't, Blake said. The rocket hit near a group of soldiers, three of whom died.

"We didn't do maintenance," he said, "so we didn't know until later how easy a fix that would have been. If we'd known, they would have had a chance to get out of the way.

"Seeing their bodies, something just kind of went off in my head," he said. "I let it cook in my head, and it came out when I went back to (my civilian job)."

Blake said he was diagnosed with both combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and has been on antidepressants since that last deployment. He said he retired from Walker State Prison in 2018.

Even so, he said he wouldn't change much if he had the opportunity.

"I'd always wanted to be in the military," Blake said. "I think, deep down, I just wanted to serve."


Name: Joel L. Blake

Age: 73

Branch: U.S. Army

Years of service: Vietnam, July 1968 to July 1969; Operation Desert Storm, December 1990 to June 1991; Iraq, April 2006 to August 2007; 24 years in Tennessee Army National Guard

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