A U.S. Navy veteran whose service included the evacuation of Vietnam in April 1975 received several medals from Congressman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, during an award ceremony on Friday, March 20 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Hall in Portage.
Dennis Jokela, 60, of Kalamazoo, served as a second-class petty officer and flight deck aviation electrician troubleshooter on the USS Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier, during the Vietnam evacuation, dubbed Operation Frequent Wind. He was also involved with the recovery of the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayaguez and its 39 crew members, who were seized by Khmer Rouge forces in Cambodia in May 1975.
“Mainly we were a refueling station for the planes flying to get sick and wounded people out of the country, and we did have some refugees on board,” said Jokela, who owns general contracting firm The Jokela Group. “A Marine flew his family out (of Vietnam) in a Cessna and that landed on another carrier. It ended up being pushed over the side to make room for other planes.
“A month later we went to Cambodia. After Saigon fell, the Cambodians thought they would flex their muscles and took the Mayaguez and its crew. President Ford said get it back. And three days later we got the ship and the crew. We lost a few (crew members) but we got it.”
Jokela received the Vietnam Service Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for the Mayaguez Operation, Meritorious Unit Commendation Ribbon with one Bronze Star, National Defense Service Medal, Navy Good Conduct Medal and the U.S. Navy Honorable Discharge Button for his service.
“I was an aviation electrician troubleshooter on the flight deck,” said Jokela, who served from 1974 to 1978. “It was the most dangerous job in the world because it was on the flight deck on an aircraft carrier, but I loved it. I would do it again.”
Jokela, who is a reserve officer with the Kalamazoo County Sheriff Department and host of a Christian public television show, said he didn’t have the warmest welcome when he came home. While walking to his gate at a Chicago airport, his belongings were slapped from his hands, he was tripped and spat upon eight times each, he said.
“We, as a nation, weren’t as kind as we could have been to our military personnel when they returned from service in the 1970s,” said Upton, whose office helped Jokela obtain his medals. “I hope Friday’s ceremony provides the ‘Thank you’ that Dennis Jokela should have gotten back then for serving our great country in time of conflict. I am proud to be able to share this experience with a service member who helped save so many lives.”