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Walter Joseph Riedemann III, the lead maintenance mechanic for Naval Facilities Emergency Services at MCAS Miramar, respects and admires his family's history of prestigious U.S. Naval service but has charted out a different course for himself. This Virginia Beach native teams up with Marines, Sailors, and civilian employees of MCAS Miramar to help 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing fulfill its mission of supplying air combat power to the Marine Air Ground Task Force and U.S. combatant commands around the world.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Jackson Rush

"Building" Upon a Legacy

21 Mar 2023 | Gunnery Sgt. Jesse R Stence Marine Corps Air Station Miramar

The Family Legacy

All men receive an inheritance, whether it comes in the form of material possessions, history or tradition. Along with this inheritance comes some form of reckoning. On at least a subconscious level, everyone assesses their inheritance. They weigh its benefits against the responsibilities, dangers or expectations that come along with it. When successive generations proudly build upon each other’s inheritance in a characteristic way, society refers to these acts of succession as “building upon on a legacy.”

A casual observer might think that Walter Joseph Riedemann III has not built upon his family’s legacy. In fact, he has charted out his life in a much different way than his forefathers. They literally charted the course of vessels for the U.S. Navy over military campaigns spanning World War II to Vietnam. His maternal grandfather, Robert E. Riera, ascended to the rank of Navy rear admiral through decorated service as a pilot and ship commander from World War II to Vietnam. His father, Walter Joseph Riedemann Jr., is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery after an accomplished career that also included a decorated combat tour in Vietnam and commanding ships. On the other hand, Riedemann III, or “Joe,” as he’s known at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, has none of their prestigious military accolades.

For Joe, learning about their service gave him respect for the military and a sense of family pride, but not a desire to serve in exactly the same way. Ultimately, Joe charted a different course for his life, but ironically, his winding course has brought him abreast of the Navy and Marine Corps again. Now, at 59 years old, this self-described “black sheep” is putting his unique spin on the family legacy by supporting Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing flight operations as the lead maintenance mechanic for Naval Facilities Emergency Services at MCAS Miramar.

Oh No, Joe!

In 1982, Joe abruptly debarked from his family’s military tradition with when he quit community college. He only attended to appease his father, who still hoped that he would find inspiration to obtain the prerequisite bachelor’s degree for an officer’s commission. However, Joe barely had the motivation to finish high school, and technically, he didn’t — quitting during his senior year before earning a GED. When he dropped out of community college during his second year, he closed the book on formal education for the rest of his life.

Joe described himself as a hyperactive and mischievous “Dennis the Menace” who wasn’t suited for a traditional learning environment and didn’t have career aspirations that motivated him to endure high school and college. As much as he admired the service of his father and grandfather, he never idealized it for various reasons.

For one, Joe said he felt uncomfortable accepting the privileges associated with being an officer. As the child of one, he saw them as normal people with typical flaws; thus, the reverential treatment they received seemed unnatural for him to accept.

“I always wondered, you know, why everybody gets out of line for them,” said Joe, recalling his interaction with troops while spending time with his father and grandfather.

Joe chuckled wryly as he remembered one of his childhood pranks, which played upon what he considered the absurdities of interaction between junior and senior troops.

Per Navy custom, his father had a “full bird” blue sticker on the bumper of his car that identified him as a Navy captain to troops who might not be able to see his rank through the windows. Junior troops were trained to be on the lookout for this blue sticker and to either render a salute to the passing captain or receive a stern verbal reprimand for failure to show due respect. Joe was amused by this dogmatic deference to rank, and it inspired him to mischievously drive his father’s car around base and collect salutes from conscientious but unwitting troops.

Despite his irreverence toward aspects of military hierarchy, Joe expressed profound respect for his family’s service and an awareness of the somber responsibilities of officers. This awareness of the weight of their responsibilities, he said, was another reason why he chose not to follow in his fathers’ footsteps.

Joe recalled an experience that underscored the burden of responsibility that his father bore.

“At his funeral, this guy came who was one of his shipmates from Vietnam,” said Joe. “And he came and sat me down, and he said, ‘Dude, I can’t begin to tell you what an amazing man your dad was. You know, how he was not just the CO of the ship, but how he was a leader, and he was fair with everybody and communicated with everybody.’ And this guy had stayed in touch with him since the Vietnam days, and he said that over there that, ‘It was real.’ You know what I mean? People were dying.”

His dad didn’t talk very much about his experience in Vietnam, said Joe, and many of the things he mentioned, such as witnessing the death of brothers-at-arms and writing letters of condolence to their loved ones, weren’t meant to be told publicly.

Today, certain aspects of his father’s career can be verified. According to his obituary, which appeared in the Virginian-Pilot on Sept. 5, 2012, four days after his death, he “served with distinction as the commanding officer … both of the USS Tom Green County (LST 1159) and the USS San Bernardino (LST 1189) both in Vietnam waters.” The article goes on to say that he was awarded numerous medals and service ribbons, including the Meritorious Service Medal, the Bronze Star with a Combat “V,” the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Vietnam Service Medal with “seven stars.”

Joe describes a complex relationship with his father.

On one hand, they loved each other. Joe said his dad showed an interest in his education and athletic pursuits, and Joe looked up to his father and admired his accomplishments.

However, Joe’s dad could also be hard on him. He was the product of an old-school upbringing and expressed his love by pushing Joe to excel, which could be emotionally taxing. Joe desperately wanted his father’s approval and despaired when his father got on his case about poor grades or striking out in a baseball game.

“I remember those things, but then I also remember something my dad told me. He said his dad never came to any of his sporting events. Ever. And he told me that when he was a senior (citizen), so that tells me that it bothered him. That affected him, so he tried to be the opposite with sports.”

Joe the Hustler

The elder Riedemann’s tough love didn’t influence his son as intended; in fact, it pushed him away from the military. Instead, Joe got serious about carpentry, a trade he began to learn as a 17-year-old high school senior, living with his dad in Virginia Beach.

“I just saw the guys out there wearing tool bags and tennis shoes and shorts, and I said, that looks cool,” said Joe. “I got a job as a laborer first, and worked on a three-man crew, and would just carry all of the wood for them, and then they just taught you. You just learned.”

Joe was not immediately sure that taking up carpentry was the right choice. Sometimes, he beat himself up for not following his family’s military tradition. While earning meager wages in Virginia Beach, he saw successful service members from nearby military installations all around him.

“The first summer of building houses, I watched a jet fly over, and I went, I (screwed) up,” he reminisced. “I was out there making like $2.35 an hour, working my ass off, and I was like, ‘This is not a good life choice.’ But, I was never really good at school, and I never really wanted to be in school. School wasn’t my thing. So, what else you gonna do?”

Eventually, Joe acquired enough carpentry skill and business connections for he and a friend, Steve Hankinson, to attempt building the frame of a house by themselves. They completed the job, made enough money to make rent, realized they were skilled enough to go into business independently, and began to expand their operation. They called it “H + J Construction” for Hank and Joe.

“‘Hey, let’s bring in a helper, and we can help speed this up,’” Joe recalled them saying to themselves, “and it evolved to where, within a couple years, we had 18 guys working for us and were just doing very well.”

At about age 20, Joe had purchased a fully loaded Ford F-250 with cash, he said. Over the next 5 years, his private construction company cranked out a shopping center and multiple houses at once.

However, the military influence that loomed over his adolescence eventually reappeared in a totally different form as tensions between US and Iraq flared in 1990. Those tensions set off Operation Desert Storm and a chain of events that put him out of business.

“What ended (it) was the Iraq War, ‘cause Virginia Beach is a military town, and it emptied it, and there was no work,” said Joe. “So, what are you gonna do?”

In the midst deciding on his next career move, Joe became reacquainted with his mother, Robin (formerly Robin Riera), the daughter of his decorated grandfather. She and his father had divorced when he was two or three, Joe recalled. She was then in San Diego with her husband, Jim Clinton, a retired U.S. Navy aviator.

Joe moved out to San Diego and lived with his mother for about a month while finding work in Southern California.

“So, I came out here and actually became an ordnance sweeper in Tierrasanta,” he said. “That used to be a bombing range. I worked there for like three years, and they finally said — the government — they said, ‘Hey, we got untrained civilians diggin’ up live ordnance. We can’t have that.’ So that ended.”

Joe, who maintained a healthy relationship with his father, talked to him about his predicament.

“He said, ‘You’re a carpenter; you need to stick with what you already put your time into,’” recalled Joe.

Joe got back into carpentry and began to diversify his expertise into different trades to avoid the consequences of market disruptions in a single industry like the one that sunk H + J Construction in Virginia Beach. Over the next decade, his life formed a pattern. He was a hustler: always looking for the next construction contract, working hard, and playing just as hard in Ocean Beach, San Diego, where he lived.

Redemption of Joe the Hustler

In an ironic twist of fate, Joe’s next major life event occurred in a year that conflict again erupted between the U.S. and Iraq. Thirteen years earlier, Operation Desert Storm destroyed Joe’s business in Virginia Beach; but in 2003, the year when the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom to permanently oust Saddam Hussein, Joe’s life would take a dramatic turn for the better when he met a woman named Mary.

Joe met Mary through a friend he’d made while living in Ocean Beach. He learned that she had once been a successful architect in Colombia but fell upon a series of unfortunate events that found her alone in Southern California with her five-year-old son Mateo.

Joe, who described himself as a selfish person before meeting Mary, said he immediately felt a sense of affection and compassion for her.

“’Just do something right in your life for somebody else and not ask something of it,’” Joe remembers telling myself.

Joe’s thoughts about Mary triggered self-reflection about his spiritual journey. As he spoke about her upstanding character and the Christian faith they share, he looked down at his exposed forearms, covered in fresh ink that depicts the crucifixion and the concept of spiritual redemption. He talked about how she influenced him to change his ways.

“I was a heavy partier, lived day-by-day,” said Joe. “I didn’t live for tomorrow. That had always been my motto. ‘Why live for tomorrow when you’re living for today?’ But no, she was life-saving — totally lifesaving — and still is to this day.”

Joe wed Mary and helped her raise Mateo, who is now 26.

Joe’s love for Mary and commitment to his new family were the main factors that eventually led him to his work at MCAS Miramar, he said. As a private contractor, he lived from contract to contract, making a lot of money after a big job, but never sure where he would find his next source of income. He saw a military-affiliated position at Miramar as a more stable job to help him provide for Mary and Mateo.

A few things happened before Joe got hired at Miramar. First, he mastered 15 different construction-related trades without any formal training – just pure on-the-job experience and personal research. With the knowledge that he had steadily acquired throughout his life, he passed a test to gain a California certification as a general contractor in 2007 while working for Douglas E. Barnhart Inc., building schools in Southern California. After work dried up with Barnhart, he briefly went back into private contracting before applying for a position with Naval Facilities and eventually landing his current position at MCAS Miramar in 2015.

Joe, who once fled the giant shadow of his father’s prestigious military career, had come full circle. Today, he proudly serves the Navy and Marine Corps on his own terms at MCAS Miramar. Instead of coming to work in Navy Dress Whites and the shiny rank insignia of an officer, he comes to work in jeans and a t-shirt like the carpenters who mentored him in Virginia Beach.

The Legacy of Joe

In November and December, the goateed, heavily-tattooed, 59-year-old Walter J. Riedemann III found himself leading troops for the first time but doing so along the path he set out for himself rather than the one his father envisioned for him. Joe wasn’t leading troops in combat, but he was teaming up with Marines, Sailors, and civilian employees of MCAS Miramar to help 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing fulfill its mission of supplying air combat power to the Marine Air Ground Task Force and U.S. combatant commands around the world. Ultimately, he would be carrying out a task prioritized by the commanding officer of MCAS Miramar, Col. Thomas M. Bedell, who holds the Marine Corps equivalent of his father’s rank.

Bedell, an AV-8B Harrier II pilot, learned about 91 “spawls,” or cracks, on the Miramar runway that presented hazards to personnel and equipment involved in short take-off and vertical landing exercises with the state-of-the-art F-35B Lightning II aircraft. He prioritized these repairs, and the MCAS Miramar staff began to talk with their 3rd MAW counterparts about teaming up to make the repairs as quickly as possible. Joe and his team of construction mechanics, who directly support MCAS Miramar, had the expertise but not the manpower to make the repairs at the pace of 3rd MAW operations.

MCAS Miramar and 3rd MAW eventually found the solution; they realized that the mission timeline could be moved up if Joe and his team could train the combat engineers of Marine Wing Support Squadron 373, 3rd MAW to fix the spawls.

Joe linked up with 1st Lt. Martha D. Garcia, the engineer platoon commander with MWSS-373 and a native of El Paso, Texas, to complete the repairs over four weekends in November and December of 2022.

“He was extremely energetic,” said Garcia, smiling enthusiastically when thinking of Joe. “Very helpful. Very knowledgeable.”

Garcia whipped out her cell phone as she spoke, thumbing through a photo collage of Marines who were alternately posing for group photos or hunching over holes on the tarmac, brows furrowed in concentration as they tackled the problem of seemingly static concrete that had gradually shifted over time. Overall, they looked happier than you would expect of a group of young men and women working overtime on the weekend on a barren stretch of runway instead of enjoying the beaches of Southern California.

“I mean, he was taking the time to pick out my Marines – like one-by-one,” she said. “And he was like, ‘Alright, this is how you do this! Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera … And then when it came down to the planning, he’s the only one I talked to the whole time with the planning …”

As Garcia reflected on her month of interaction with Joe, she described him as a naturally motivated, straightforward man of action. Joe wouldn’t just explain how to do the job, she said; he would get down in the dirt and show them exactly how it should be done. His frank personality extended beyond training, into his personal interactions with her Marines, she said.

“It seems like he’s like that about everything,” said Garcia. “His job, and then talking about his personal life and everything that he went through. It just seems like that’s how he is, honestly.”

Sgt. Ryan D. Oettel, a combat engineer with the platoon and a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, said he learned a lot from Joe, who seemed to have a genuine interest in mentoring the Marines.
Oettel arrived at Miramar within the past year after concluding his first tour of duty, at 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, part of 2nd Marine Division, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Oettel said his past experiences hadn’t included much work on the flightline. During the runway mission, he observed the meticulous way that Joe managed the work -- subdividing it into individual jobs and explaining the critical details of those jobs to the Marines who would be performing them.

“He was very clear, concise and to the point about what needed to happen, and just with the timelines of everything throughout the day, what the Marines needed to be doing,” said Oettel. “Kind of guiding me how to guide my Marines on what they were supposed to be doing … Just stuff like that.”

“It seems like he tried to talk to all of the Marines, whether they were myself, a sergeant, down to our lowest PFC,” he added.

As Garcia talked about Joe’s contributions to the mission, her conversation branched out to the broader development of her Marines and the relationship between everyone in her platoon. Again, she extracted her cell phone and proudly displayed pictures of her Marines at the Marine Corps Ball, striking a variety of bombastic poses in their Dress Blue “A” uniforms. Garcia had captured snapshots of a special fraternity bound together by common purpose, shared struggle, and a storied tradition of success in the face of adversity.

If the Navy and Marine Corps are sister services, then the Marines in Garcia’s platoon could be likened to nephews and nieces in Joe’s fraternal military family. If nothing else, they may be the service members who bring Joe closest to passing on his father’s legacy of military service.

Joe will not be passing on that legacy by blood, for he and Mary focused on raising Mateo rather than having a child of their own. However, Joe can pass on his father’s legacy by positively impacting the lives of those around him, much like his father impacted the enlisted man who spoke affectionately about how he cared for his men in Vietnam.

Here at Miramar, Joe passes on that legacy by teaming up with Marines, Sailors and civilians of MCAS Miramar and 3rd MAW. His work will not earn him a Bronze Star, but it will ensure that Marines and Sailors can safely conduct training to maintain their combat effectiveness.

As a Christian, Joe said he believes that his father is looking down at him with pride. As he thinks about that pride, a memory resurfaces.

“I remember years ago, I was building a shopping center, and we had to fly in the trusses with a crane,” said Joe. “And I remember … I was up there, and I was flying them in, and I looked over, and he was standing over there, just watching.

“He was always proud of me, no matter what I did,” said Joe. “Even if I screwed up, he was always proud.”

Marine Corps Air Station Miramar