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Vietnam shapes East Tennessee boy, career journalist

Joe Biddle is known for his no-nonsense, to-the-point sports reporting. Whether radio, television or in print, when Biddle speaks—sports fans listen.
 
Perhaps he discovered his direct, straightforward manner when he beat an inevitable draft into the Army in 1967 by joining the Air Force. 
 
Biddle had just entered his senior year at East Tennessee State University when he got wind that his local draft board in Washington County hadn’t been able to make its quota, leaving the board no choice but to call up young men like himself who had college deferments. 
 
It was at that moment that Biddle made his move and joined the Air Force.
 
His first assignment after boot camp was Little Rock Air Force Base. 
 
“They didn’t know what to do with me,” Biddle said. “I didn’t have any skills so they put me in an orderly room answering phones and a gopher for the colonel.”
 
In his spare time, Biddle hung out at the base gym where he earned a spot on a baseball team.
 
“I played a lot of fast-pitch for two years,” he said. “I still had no skills that could be used for combat, but I scored high in marksmanship during basic training.”
 
After two-years of answering phones and playing ball, Biddle “got tired of Arkansas” and volunteered for Vietnam. 
 
His deployment took him to Ban Me Thuat in the central highlands of Vietnam where the Montagnard, or mountain people, lived. 
 
“The [Viet Cong] and the North Vietnamese were scared of them,” Biddle said.
“It was like I was back in the Stone Age. I used every trick in the book to get somewhere else.”
 
He spent all of 1969 on the coast at Nha Trang.
 
There, Biddle found a nook. He began installing and repairing telecommunications equipment for the air base and nearby Camp McDermott, home of the 5th Special Forces Green Berets.
 
Known for being self-sufficient, Biddle wasted little time getting a Vietnamese drivers license, which allowed him to make a run for parts or ferry security troops to meet a convoy.
 
“I didn’t see combat, but we were vulnerable,” Biddle said. “There were caves in a mountain nearby and they would shoot at the base during the night.”
 
“We got used to it,” he added.
He says he saw plenty of damaged planes barely make it back to base, but he also carries the memory of witnessing an American jet en route back to his base take a hit and crash into a village school filled with children.
 
“The sad thing about it, if the government let us fight the war the way we were supposed to fight, we would have won it a lot earlier and saved a lot of lives,” Biddle said.
 
When he returned to the states on Jan. 5, 1970. he learned that he had missed a lot during his year in Nha Trang. 
 
“I missed a man walk on the moon. I missed the New York Mets and Casey Stengel win the World Series.” 
 
“It wasn’t like it is now. We didn’t have phones; no contact with the outside world except by letters.”
 
Biddle had also missed the anti-war protests that had escalated throughout the country. He was not prepared for what he experienced the day he landed in Seattle.
 
“When I got off the plane I got dirty looks and comments,” he shared.
 
He shook it off like most soldiers who served their country during the Vietnam War and tried to return to his life. 
 
“I went back to school to finish,” he said. “They started to offer a journalism class while I was gone. At the same time, I got a part-time job at the Johnson City Press Chronicle.”
 
Biddle made it to Nashville in 1998.
 
“For years as the Veteran’s Day Parade would go down Broadway, I would stand on the sidewalk watching straggling Vietnam veterans,” he said. “They didn’t feel comfortable participating—I didn’t feel comfortable. Basically, it was the way we were treated when we came back. One year, I decided to join [the parade] and I recruited other Vietnam vets.”
 
Each year he watched the numbers grow. This year about 60 will march in the Nashville parade.

Posted on: 11/8/2013

 
 

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