Joe West

Born in the summer of 1950 in Eastern Iowa, I was raised by my Mother and my non-biological Father, I use that term because I never felt from my earliest memory to his passing that he was anything other than my Father.

I have two sisters with whom, unfortunately, I do not a have a relationship. I accept responsibility for that non-relationship as part of the consequence of my alcoholism and drug addiction which will be addressed shortly.

I was not a model child, I faced many issues in my youth and early teen years. My lack of focus and poor decision making probably had a lot to do with being sexually abused by “friends” of the family and a few who should have been leaders in my life. I quit school in the 11th grade to become a famous rock and roll drummer. That didn’t turn out quite like I had envisioned it. I ran away to seek my fame and fortune, my parents not viewing my budding stardom in quite the same light turned me in as a runaway and within a not so long period of time my dreams of stardom faded into a juvenile arrest for running away. My extremely poor attitude while on probation ultimately got me sent to reform school for being incorrigible and delinquent. Please let me say reform school in Iowa was NOTHING like the reports of the reform school in Marianna, Fl.

I was enrolled in a truck mechanics apprenticeship program and graduated and gained full time employment as a heavy truck mechanic. In the fall of my 19th year I fell in love and married a very sweet young lady who did not deserve what I would become. The first of many relationships I would be incapable of maintaining. I received what was then a very common letter from the President of the United States inviting me to spend a few years with the United States Army.

While in Basic Combat Training (more commonly known as Boot Camp), I completed the tests required and received my GED. Because of my background in heavy truck repair I missed going to Infantry and was assigned as a Military Occupational Skill (MOS) of Wheel Vehicle mechanic. I was assigned to an Artillery Training Unit in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where I went to school for vehicle recovery, which I completed before coming down on levy for permanent change of stations (PCS) to the Republic of Vietnam. I arrived in country in Mid-September 1970 and was assigned to a Transportation Unit with Second Field Force Vietnam (llFFV).

I returned home in September 1971 and began trying to put my life in order. I had serious anger problems that I didn’t understand and would not figure out for another 25 years. That nice young woman stayed with me for about 8 months before she had had enough of my insanity and filed for divorce. I have since made my amends to her and commended her on her bravery, dedication and loyalty. Looking back at my behavior I told her how impressed I was that she stayed with me for 8 months, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have stayed 8 days with someone that crazy.
I was not known for good decision making then. Unable to hold a job my drinking was out of control and I decided to return to the military, using that decision-making ability I spoke of earlier I enlisted in the Navy and spent the next year and a half tumbling farther down the hole that alcohol and drugs take you. After an attempt to end my life in January 1976 the Navy sent me to an Alcohol Treatment Center for 2 months and then discharged me under Honorable conditions in hopes I would be able to get my life together.

In 1983 while self-destructing my third marriage I was diagnosed with a very rare form of skin cancer. I was the sixth person to contract this form of cancer ever and four of the other five were also Vietnam Veterans. You must remember that in the early eighties the Veterans Administration and the Chemical Industry were lobbying hard to NOT acknowledge the use of chemicals that were known carcinogens. The mid to late eighties is also when a condition that would become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was just coming into the light.

The pattern of not being able to hold a job or relationship together would continue and on Christmas Eve 1986 I was arrested for DUI while driving a commercial vehicle. The positive effect of this was finally realizing alcohol was not my friend, on the evening of January 19, 1987 while looking down the barrel of a pistol, I poured out my remaining beers and called someone for help.

While I was able to put down the alcohol I continued to self-medicate smoking pot. It was also at this time I had discovered stand-up comedy and embarked on what would be my calling. I moved to Seattle where I worked various jobs to sustain my newest addiction stand-up comedy, by 1988 I was touring as an opening act and slowly working my way to becoming a headliner. It dawned on me that for the first time ever I was able to do something for more than six months. It would be years yet before I would discover addiction was ruling my life.

By this time, I had been through three marriages and countless short and medium-term relationships. By the time I quit drinking, it occurred to me that, like drinking, one on one relationships were not something I was very good at. Through traveling and continually moving I avoided marriage well. But even though I wasn’t drinking I continued to smoke marijuana and was still abusing anyone who tried to be a part of my life. The problem with addiction is you suffer from a disease that lives in your head telling you “you don’t have a problem, it’s everyone else” and it affects everyone around you. It is said that an addict/alcoholic is like a tornado, wreaking havoc and destruction to everything and everyone in and near its path. From my personal experience I find this statement to be accurate, and it explains why my family in the Midwest is grateful I’ve stayed in Florida.

In 1995, I met the newest love of my life here in Tallahassee. I moved here and again had just as much success with a relationship as I’d had in the past. I took a hiatus from comedy in 1996 in hopes of improving that relationship thing. In the beginning of May 1997, the woman ended our relationship and a couple of days later my Mom passed, I knew she had been in the hospital but thought she was improving, I didn’t call her that weekend (like I always did) because of my own little pity party and didn’t really want her to know that another relationship had gone under. I was thinking that May was not a good month and by the end of May I was working on a paint job in St. Teresa and living in a tent on Ochlocknee Bay. The Marijuana was not killing the pain and I realized I was either going to go to harder drugs, end up in a room with mattresses on the walls or dead.

I went back to the Spiritual Fellowship I had gone to when I stopped drinking and on June 5th, 1997 I stopped using mind altering drugs and began rebuilding my life. By now PTSD had become an accepted condition for combat veterans as I was encouraged by VA mental health workers to consider anti-depressants or anxiety medications. I refused these options having just recently becoming drug free for the first time in more than 30 years. I found a house to buy on contract and shortly after that, the relationship that has just ended sprouted new wings. Against the advice of many in that Spiritual fellowship I pursued the relationship and married for the fourth time. Bear in mind the average length of my previous marriages had been about three years. This one lasted thirteen months, a new record for me. Although I tried to make the split as amiable as possible, allowing her to stay in my house until the end of the school year so her children wouldn’t have to change schools, it did not end amicably. She vandalized the house, and I left a couple of very ugly voicemails telling her what I really thought. One of those voicemails, in which I stated my feelings toward her and described my opinion of her personality, was twisted into a restraining order that I didn’t bother to challenge. I was happy to be away from the trauma and drama of that unbalanced relationship. The restraining order remained in effect for years until I retained an attorney who, in one appearance, had it overturned. My attorney told me I had just cause for a violation of civil rights lawsuit if I chose to pursue it. Not being the litigious sort, I let it go and was happy with having all my rights restored.

In 1998, I met a Tallahassee born and bred woman who would be part of changing my life. I went back to doing comedy on a part-time basis, had a custom painting and wood refinishing business and in 2001 and married Denise Gay Beal, a marriage relationship that has lasted almost twice as long as my first four combined and continues to strengthen.

In 2005 (at the urging of my wife and a VA Mental Health worker), I answered an ad about volunteers needed to support a visit to Tallahassee by The Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall exhibit. Up until this time, I had kept my issues with my Vietnam experience to myself and had avoided contact with Veteran Service Organizations. While I utilized my VA benefit for healthcare, I did not follow the advice of my healthcare team about dealing with what they saw as major depression and the likelihood of PTSD. That November 2006 Wall visit was magical for me and brought me back into contact with my Brothers and Sisters from my Military days. I joined a Veteran Service Organization (Vietnam Veterans of America) began socializing with other Veterans in the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club. At that time, I had no idea of the hard times ahead. In 2008 I for the first time in over 20 years went to work for someone other than myself. That didn’t work out well and with the downturn in the Economy in October 2008 found myself and my wife homeless.

Unable to find full time work I was persuaded by my fellow Veterans and VA Mental Health professionals to seek disability status. My initial claim was filed in December 2008 and would be approved just a short 6 and a half years later. In the meantime, a program came to Tallahassee called Veterans Affairs Subsidized Housing (VASH). The initial program was only for single homeless Veterans and saw the startup of Vet Village on Lake Bradford Road. Denise and I were placed on a waiting list while the program was put in place for Veterans with families. And we waited.

Still being active with Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club it was brought to my attention at the 2009 POW/MIA Recognition Day (a national event that is held the 3rd Friday in September every year) candlelight vigil held that year at the Korean War Memorial at what would become Cascades Park that the Memorial did not have an American flag or pole. With the help of a Manager at Florida Department of Management Services and volunteer businesses we got State Approval for a Construction project to erect 2 Flag poles at the Memorial and had them installed within 45 days. Being naïve I did not realize that getting a project started, approved and completed on State property in this amount of time was almost the equivalent of Moses parting the Red Sea. The initial flag raising was to take place on the morning of Veterans Day 2009, prior to the Annual Leon County Veterans Day Parade. While the flag raising ceremony did take place the Veterans Day Parade did not. At a Leon County Commission meeting a week later I suggested that a group be formed made up of representatives of Various Veteran Service Organizations and citizens who would be responsible for organizing and producing the Veterans Day Parade. Since it was my idea I was tasked with putting together a proposal and bringing it back to the Commission on February 9, 2010.

Every Sunday evening through December I opened the Hootch (Home of Vietnam Veterans of America Big Bend Chapter # 96) signing up those interested in this project. On Monday January 4, 2010 the first meeting of what was called The Parade Committee was held, I was nominated for President and promptly declined due to lack of resources. My wife and I were still living in a 20-foot camper in a friend’s yard awaiting the opening of the HUD/VASH program, Denise and I were living on a $600 per month stipend from the VA pending the outcome of my Disability claim, and I told everyone at that meeting there was no way I could afford to represent this organization in the manner that would be needed to make it successful.

The membership passed a motion authorizing the president to be paid a mileage stipend of fifty-five cents per mile, if I would accept the nomination. I accepted and agreed that if elected, I would take the lead for a maximum of three years if re-elected annually, the term limit imposed in the bylaws. I began putting together a proposal for the Leon County Commission to turn over the Leon County Veterans Day Parade to an organization that would be called Veteran Events in Tallahassee, Inc. (VET Inc), a private 501(c)3 nonprofit Corporation.

I had been suffering from severe shortness of breath for almost a year, I had been diagnosed with COPD and given inhalers to help with this problem. When I told my primary care physician the inhaler was having no effect, she scheduled a cardiac stress test. On January 15, 2010, after failing that test at the VA Clinic here in Tallahassee, I was transferred to Capital Regional Medical Center where I underwent quadruple bypass surgery. With less than three weeks left to prepare for the commission meeting I was certain VET, Inc. was in trouble. With the help of two local attorneys, Matt Willard and Lisa Hurley, on the evening of February 9, 2010, the Leon county Veterans Day Parade was turned over to VET Inc. The Parade had been struggling after being moved from Monroe Street in 2003 and by 2008 had less than 600 participants and crowd estimates of considerably less than 2,000 people attending the Parade. Without the support of retired Tallahassee Police Department Sergeant Mark Meadows, who moved the parade back to Monroe Street, the event would have continued to decline.

On a personal note throughout this first year the HUD/VASH program finally had funding for married Veterans and on May 1st, 2010 after seventeen months in a camper with a portable toilet, Denise and I moved into an apartment.

Veteran Events in Tallahassee, Inc., whose forty original members in attendance at that January 4th meeting had shrunken to eight by August, managed on November 11, 2010 to return the Veterans Day Parade to Monroe Street. With over 3,000 participants and a crowd of nearly 30,000 lining the street along the new parade route, it was a proud moment. Participating in the same parade for the first time in recent memory were the Marching 100 of Florida A & M University and the Marching Chiefs of The Florida State University.

Over the next six years, I would continue to lead what now had become Vet Events Tally to six successful parades, adding an All-Day Festival and a 5K Race, the Parade and support events has become known as one of the best Veteran Day Celebrations in the Southeast. Besides the parade festivities, Vet Events Tally has been involved with countless other events that honor the men and women of our Armed Forces.

This tenure was not without bumps in the road. In 2010 a former volunteer brought accusations of misconduct by officers after interpreting an email incorrectly. We brought in outside veterans to investigate, and our accuser confessed he had misunderstood a fundraising request.

In late 2012 another former volunteer created her own version of our Annual Profit/Loss Statement that we use for IRS filings. She had become angry at me about a statement I made referring to the Mission Statement of Vietnam Veterans of America. She sent the altered document to Vet Events Tally General Counsel Matt Willard alleging I, the president, had misappropriated funds for personal use. She also blind copied County Commissioners with this falsified document. While all the Commissioners chose to support Vet Events Tally, the board hired an outside accounting firm to perform a forensic audit of our books. This audit cost Vet Events Tally more than 50% of its cash assets. The firm wrote a letter of findings to be entered into Vet Events Tally business meeting minutes. They found no evidence of any funds misused, mislabeled or misappropriated. Even in the face of factual proof, the accuser and some of her friends to this day continue to hold onto to this fraudulent claim and slander me. I have no doubt at some point during this campaign this will come up again.

In late 2014, my disability claim was finally approved and in early 2016, we were approved for a VA Home Loan. We closed on our first home purchase in late April and on May 1st, 2016, seven years after moving out of that camper, we moved into our home in Huntington Woods, inside City of Tallahassee limits.

In 2016, I led my final parade up Monroe Street and in January of 2017 turned over the reins of Vet Events Tally to a new Board of Directors.
Having had dealings with the City of Tallahassee Commission that I found unpleasant, I wasn’t surprised to hear rumors of misbehavior by our City Commissioners. I attended a few City Commission meetings and was left wondering how our commissioners could talk for several hours and not say anything. The more I listened to and checked out our Commission, the more convinced I became that most if not all the commissioners served not to better the City of Tallahassee but to enhance their own personal wealth and power base. A mayor who had never held a job other than Commissioner now entertained delusions of grandeur about becoming Governor of Florida. Commissioners flagrantly gave favors to keep their elected positions. The City Manager created jobs for and gave 40- and 50-percent pay raises to his cronies. The City Attorney continued to protect the selfish interests of a few at the expense of all the citizens of Tallahassee. While violent crime continued to rise, with Tallahassee leading the State in per capita violent crime for the past three years, a 23-percent increase in property taxes was implemented.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was attending an Ethics workshop in October of 2017, where two members of the voter-approved Independent Ethics Board appeared before City Commissioners with seven proposed ethics standards that mirrored State Ethics rules. A little-known clause, written into the amendment by City Attorney Lewis Shelly, gave Commissioners the power to overrule and amend any recommendation by our Ethics Board. I watched our Commissioners literally pull the teeth from the seven recommendations the Ethics Board members had proposed. It was then I realized the only way Tallahassee was going to prosper and grow was if we rid ourselves of this entire Commission, Management and Appointees. And that is the work I will do.