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Mike Tharp: Meet an old friend of mine

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

Say howdy to the man many feel is the best war correspondent of his generation.

Joe Galloway.

My longtime colleague and even longer-time friend.

Joe is "retired" from McClatchy the way Bill Gates is retired from Microsoft. He's busier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin' chairs.

Mainly, he's been traveling the country and even the world, promoting his latest book with retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. You may have seen the 2002 movie, "We Were Soldiers," directed by and starring Mel Gibson.

That was based on Joe and the general's first book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," published in 1992. Recently named one of the 10 best books about war ever, it described in horrific and dramatic detail the first major ground battle between U.S. Army soldiers and North Vietnamese Army regulars in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965.

Joe was in his early 20s, newly arrived in country for United Press International. Moore was a colonel. It doesn't spoil the book or the film if you know that Joe was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor from that battle -- the only civilian ever to earn such an honor.

Since August, Joe has been gallivanting round the nation and as far away as Australia, signing copies of their latest book: "We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam."

Here's a link:

http://www.amazon.com/We-Are-Soldiers-Still-Battlefields/dp/0061147761/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1217002937&sr=8-2

Joe and I met when he was a crew-cut young Texan landing in Topeka, Kan., to cover the state capital for then-United Press. I was a teenaged copy boy for the Capital-Journal (where the name of this column came from).

After that, our paths almost crossed a dozen times: he went to 'Nam, I went to 'Nam. He went to Tokyo, I went to Tokyo. He reported in L.A. So did I. But it wasn't until the late '80s that we finally re-met in the flesh, and I joined Joe and several other old Asia hands for lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in Virginia.

We were all working for the same newsmagazine, and we had all spent wild times in what I call the Far Out East.

It was good being on the same team with Joe.

I remember that he edited a story I wrote about a Japanese politician running for office in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. The pol liked to strum a guitar on the campaign trail, and Joe used the verb "unlimber" to describe in my story how he grabbed it and started pickin'.

I don't remember too many specifics of how my stories have been edited over the decades, but I remember that one. Joe did what an editor is supposed to do: make your work better.

We'd get together in D.C. whenever I'd come to town and carouse a little. Not the way we did when we were younger. But enough to reassure ourselves we could still bring it.

John Walcott, now McClatchy Washington bureau chief, was an editor on the same magazine as Joe and I. He left and joined Knight-Ridder, and when Joe bolted the magazine in 2001, John brought him aboard. They both became McClatchyites after the company bought K-R.

A few of you may recall that it was the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau -- mainly Walcott and two dynamic reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay -- who listened for the melodies unheard during the drumbeat by most of the press before the war in Iraq.

These guys kept asking questions, kept getting answers that didn't jibe with the Bush theology and kept writing skeptical stories. Dozens of them. Stories that turned out to be right.

With Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, they did the most responsible, impressive job of journalism by anybody in the American press. In October, Walcott won the first-ever I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence. In his acceptance speech John cited Joe's clandestine contributions to the outstanding pre- and postwar coverage:

"We withheld Joe's byline from much of what we wrote to protect his sources, and this is the first time that any of us has talked publicly about the crucial role he played in this reporting. Sadly, he can't be here today; happily, that's because he's in Canberra at an Australian Army conference."

If you want to read some of the toughest, clearest, best-written opinions on war and peace and honor and dishonor and a whole lot else, check out Joe's regular columns on the McClatchy D.C. Web site:

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/galloway/

After I was in Iraq this summer, I spent an afternoon and evening with Joe at his home in Bayview, Texas, near Corpus Christi and not far from where Joe grew up in Refugio.

The one-story house sits a couple hundred paces from the Gulf of Mexico, but Joe and his forebears have always preferred to sit out the hurricanes that come through their backyard. Candles, plywood and a few spirits have seen them through.

In one of those six-degrees deals, Joe has become a patient of my college roommate, Dr. Jack Dugan, a highly respected ophthalmologist with his own clinic in Corpus. Jack was also co-captain of our national championship basketball team in college.

As we sat at Joe's kitchen table after lunch smoking Cuban cigars (don't ask), Joe knifed open a box we'd picked up at his post office. Inside were 10 copies of "We Were Soldiers" bound with gilded lining in a collector's special edition, signed by both Joe and the general.

Joe opened one of the Army-green, golden-lettered copies, pulled out a pen and wrote: "With thanks for your service in this bitter war of our youth and for a friendship that dates back half a century."

Then he handed it to me.

I took it out to my rental right away and stuck it in the trunk. Had to get a clean shirt for our supper date that night.

Then we drove into the city to meet Jack and Bonnie Trejo. I'd met Bonnie last year at a reunion of our championship team in Kansas City.

When Jack introduced her to Joe as "my fiancee," my jaw dropped. "All right, Roomie!" I yelled, pumping his hand. "Congratulations!" I said, hugging Bonnie.

It turns out that Joe and Jack share something else besides being friends with me. They both lost their wives of many decades to cancer. And now Jack had found someone to make him happy again.

We enjoyed a rowdy night. If it tells you anything, our after-dinner drink was a tequila shooter -- but primo cactus juice.

It was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf who called Joe "the finest combat correspondent of our generation -- a soldier's reporter and a soldier's friend."

I call him Bubba. And a friend.

Reach Executive Editor Mike Tharp at (209) 385-2427 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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