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Hometown Hero: Vietnam Vet Joe Wilharms pays it forward

Hometown Heroes

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – Vietnam veteran Joe Wilharms grew up on a farm in Appleton. 

He doesn’t think there’s much luck in the world, but he does believe in opportunity

“You take your chances where you find them, and work with things,” Wilharms said. “Opportunities come along, whether you accept them or not, that’s up to you.”

For Wilharms, that opportunity came as a steelworker Seabee with the Navy.

Wilarms enlisted at 18-years-old in 1967, at the recommendation of his mother’s friend.

“Becoming a Seabee fit me,” Wilharms recalled. “That’s one of those opportunities to come along and you don’t realize it until long past.”

Wilharms said he loved growing up on a farm. Much to his mother’s dismay, he was driving a tractor by the age of nine. His farm-boy roots are what made the transition into the Navy, a simple one.

“A Seabee works in construction,” Wilharms said. “It’s working, it’s welding and cutting, and drawing water.”

“It’s all the construction jobs rolled into one, and that fit me coming off a farm to a tee, because on the farm you make things work,” said Wilharms.

He was sent as a part of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11 to Quang Tri Vietnam in the summer of 1968.

“Going to Vietnam (I thought), ‘I’m nineteen, what do I know?’” Wilharms said. “You walk off the end of a tailgate in the middle of the jungle on air-fuel matting, and you look around the place and you’ve never smelled a place such a smell as the jungle, but you just go out and start working.”

Wilharms learned quickly; Eleven months, 12-hour days, four hours a week manning the fireline,  all while building steel observation towers in open ground.

“That’s the first time I ever came close to getting tagged,” Wilharms recalls. “Middle of the night, and the guy sitting down behind the sandbags next to me said, ‘That went about an inch from your head,’ and I just got down,” he said.

That Wisconsin farm boy finished up his service with the Navy after one more trip to Vietnam, and headed home in the summer of 1970.

Wilharms now works for the Fox Valley Veterans Council as vice president and an emergency-fund case-worker, helping local vets get back on their feet. Wilharms also belongs to the Fox Valley Vietnam Veterans Association, the Little Chute Legion and Disabled American Veterans.

For him, it all comes back to getting that opportunity, and now he’s paying it forward.

“I’m still helping veterans, I helped guys when I was in Vietnam and I’m helping guys now,” said Wilharms. “I think it helps me, whether you’re a veteran or not, you give a guy a chance, an honest chance, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and not everyone responds, not every veteran responds, but we have a good track record.”

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