From water buffaloes to HUMVEEs

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brigitte N. Brantley-Sisk
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
From spearfishing as a boy in the jungles of Thailand to where he is now, one chief master sergeant has lived through a nearly unbelievable set of events.

All Chief Master Sgt. Joseph Pritchard knew about until he was nearly 7 years old was the Thai culture, until his life took an unexpected but positive turn.

"One day, my dad showed up to take me away to Germany," said the current 23rd Security Forces Squadron security forces manager. "I didn't really know of the 'father' concept, and so all I knew was that this clean, fancy stranger was going to take me away from everything I knew."

His father was a command chief at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, at the time. Now-retired Chief Master Sgt. Joseph Pritchard was passing through an airport in 1975 when he ran into a mutual friend and learned he had a young son living with his grandparents in the village of Nong Khai, located in northeast Thailand.

"Knowing I had a son in a foreign country was a real heartbreaker but journeying to the village to meet him for the first time was quite an experience," said Mr. Pritchard. "The whole village was expecting my arrival and greeted me with open arms.

"Joe's grandfather sent word to have him brought in from the rice fields, which seemed to take forever but in reality was only a few minutes," he added. "All these kids riding on water buffaloes appeared out of the jungle and the little guy riding on the lead buffalo was waving his arms. That was Joe."

The bonding between father and son began immediately but the process to get the young chief out of Thailand was an ordeal.

"Joe got off the water buffalo, raced up to me, threw his arms around me and never let go," said Mr. Pritchard. "It took a few weeks of the Air Force working with the U.S. and Thai governments to make the legal arrangements to get him out of the country, but he was finally issued an American passport on July 4, 1975. That's one Fourth of July I'll never forget."

With all the proper documentation, Mr. Pritchard moved his son from a simple lifestyle in the rice fields to a more modern one in Germany. It was a country much more prosperous than what he was used to.

"Everything just seemed so civilized to me," said the chief. "Until then, all I had known was how to just survive, so modern things such as airplanes were new to me. What I liked most was the food- it was all the food I could handle, so I was eating, eating, eating."

While in Thailand, the young Chief Pritchard hunted and fished for his own food. He especially enjoyed diving for water chestnuts and finding wild watermelons.
Now in Germany, he had to adjust from surviving the jungles to surviving the halls of elementary school.

"All I wanted to do was fight, which is how I planned to survive here," said Chief Pritchard. "So my command chief father got a call one day from the school that he had to come pick his kid up because I was extorting other children for their lunch money. I was basically a big bully."

However, the chief's father knew this acting out was part of adjusting to a new lifestyle in a modern society.

"Joe didn't have the socialization skills that other kids raised in a modern society had and so as a result was constantly in trouble with them," said Mr. Pritchard. "To help with this, a great deal of time was spent diligently working on his socialization skills.

"Learning new skills and behavior patterns can be very frustrating for a young child, especially when there is a language barrier," he added. "But his teachers were understanding and helpful, and I believe the learning process became easier as his English improved."

Chief Pritchard might have continued on this negative path, but he credits two people with helping him turn his life around.

"I had a coach and an educator, which are the two roles I believe can have the biggest impact on someone's life," said the chief. "First, I had my father: he coached me to be better through the high expectations he set of me. In school, playing sports was a reward for maintaining high grades.

"However, there's no way I would have succeeded in school without the influence of Ms. Madden," he added. "She taught in an 'old school' style, so when she spoke or taught, everything stopped and you gave her your undivided attention. She saw something in me and had a tremendous influence on my educational path."

The special quality she saw in the young Thai boy is what led Ms. Madden to spend many hours after school tutoring him and teaching him to read and write. He credits her influence on helping him skip the fourth grade after scoring well on a placement test.

"Even now I think education is one of the most important things," said Chief Pritchard. "That teacher helped set me up for success and I hope to do the same for the Airmen I lead today.
"The young Airmen now are the future of the Air Force," he added. "It's important to teach them what they'll need to succeed later in their careers, especially empathy and leadership."

The chief's dad stated his son would have no problem teaching these Airmen, considering he was born with special leadership abilities.

"Joe is a leader who provides and demonstrates leadership by example," said Mr. Pritchard. "He's the type of senior NCO who every commander wants on his team and has so much to offer today's Airmen. Growing up, he always wanted to be in the military and him wanting to be a chief like me made me proud.".

It was Chief Pritchard's experiences during the beginning of his career that helps him mentor the younger Airmen he now leads.

"I was Airman Basic Pritchard at my first base, newly certified and ready to patrol," said the chief. "During the first hour of my first shift, we got a call for a domestic dispute. We drive up to the house and a man walked out- his wife had stabbed him through the rib with an eight-inch knife."

His first call as a patrolman and all the other dangerous situations he's encountered over the years have prepared him to execute his training and mentally prepare for the dangers of the job.

"Because of the dangerous situations I've been in, I take a personal interest in the security forces training we complete," said Chief Pritchard. "I've been passionate about law enforcement since I was young and I love leading in the front and passing on the passion I have for security forces.

"When I retire, I want to know the defenders I helped train are taking care of business," he added.

The chief's drive to pass on his knowledge is evident to the Airmen who have served with him.

"From what I've seen, Chief Pritchard is an amazing leader and very knowledgeable about what he does," said Senior Airman John Plumadore, 23rd SFS patrolman. "I've participated in two active shooter training classes with him and he shows a lot of passion toward his job and the Airmen. He's very hands-on and is really concerned with making sure every Airman is well-trained and ready to do the job."

Chief Pritchard plans to continue passing on his knowledge for the rest of his Air Force career and serves as example that even people who have humble beginnings can join the top one percent of the Air Force's enlisted ranks.