Thoughts from Dr. Joe: The twisted line of telling a story

After 10 months of writing and researching five hours a day, umpteen thousand words and 66 chapters, I'm pages away from completing my book. I'm hoping to finish today; however I must complete this column, teach at the Leadership Institute in San Francisco, and bring back in one piece each of the students who accompanied me.

It's funny how you'd write a sentence with a particular focus and then serendipitously turn a corner only to find that leads to another turn and yet another after that. Soon your original intent is the antithesis of your present story.

I began writing about the Hill Fights in Vietnam, particularly 881 North on April 30, 1967. Every story needs a hero. Mine, Sergeants Seamus O'Grady and Elijah Bravo, were to take the reader through the insanity of the Vietnam War to its last folly, the Mayaguez Incident of May 15, 1975.

My book was a kick-butt-and-take-names war story, but after a few bends in the road it evolved into the consummate love story. Did we really need another war story? I don't think so. But do we really need another love story? Yeah, I think we do. All love stories die with their lovers, as it should be. That's why we need to replace them.

There's nothing more compelling than a love story. Love is just there, with no beginning, no end. It's the conditionless state of the heart, not a feeling that comes and goes at the whim of emotion. It's in our heart, a part of our heart — eventually evolving into each limb and cell of our bodies. Love changes our brain, the way we move and talk. Love lives in our spirit and graces us with its presence each day until death.

What does war do? It destroys life and any potential for beauty. It destroys indiscriminately; even those who live are dead.

With each turn in the road on this journey, I began to see Ophelia Hawkins, the beautiful, bright-eyed girl from the Texas Hill Country, emerge as the hero. It wasn't the obvious, Seamus and Elijah. In the mid-1960s she was just a girl who looked good in jeans, cowboy hat and boots. But she stood for something; she stood for peace. “Ofa” became the girl with the purple ribbon. But no one listened to her and after the Mayaguez Incident, we put 18 more names on the wall in Washington, D.C. What Ophelia did, she did for love.

My favorite goddess in Greek mythology is Artemis; she's strong and reminds me of Katniss, the heroine of “The Hunger Games.” I created Ofa from the image of Katniss.

In writing a story you have to touch the dramatic. It appears to me that the plain state of being human is dramatic enough for anyone; you don't have to be a performance poet to experience extremity. You just have to love someone. The things we do for love are worthy of attention. What's more dramatic than that?

I've known many heroes in my life, I am certain that in the end, we're all ordinary. We are all unexciting. We are all remarkable. We are all shy. We are all courageous. We are all heroes. We are all helpless. It just depends on the day. In the end, a hero knows she did her best to change the events of the world.

I have figured out the ending to my story; I just have to write it. Perhaps someday Ophelia Hawkins will leave the motherboard of my computer and find her way into a published book. Heroes like Ophelia show us the way.

To my daughters, Sabine and Simone and all those women — strong enough to be heroes; fair enough to be ladies. This book is for you.

JOE PUGLIA can be reached at Visit his website at

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