Born in 1946, Joe Ladensack has survived and won battles with three formidable foes: the North Vietnamese Army, the Catholic Church, and cancer. He recollects facing these enemies in Hard to Kill: A Hero’s Tale of Surviving Vietnam and the Catholic Church (Hellgate, 270 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $5.99, Kindle), a memoir written with the help of journalist and author Joseph A. Reaves.
Against the North Vietnamese in 1969-70 Ladensack led a platoon of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers for 2/2 of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. About half the time, he and his men fought dismounted.
“Most Vietnam veterans were in three or four major firefights,” he says. “I was in more than fifty. The mechanized infantry was like the fire brigade or the ambulance corps. When anybody got in trouble, they called on us to come save them.”
His platoon’s most memorable battle action took place during an ill-conceived sweep up Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen) that led the men into an ambush. A general’s direct order prompted the ill-fated maneuver after commanders at several levels challenged it.
Sixty-eight of the company’s seventy men were killed or wounded. During that encounter, Ladensack underwent a near-death experience that convinced him to leave the Army and serve God as a priest. His battlefield exploits earned him a Purple Heart, along with two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars.
A few years ago, Bill Sly published No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den, which provides a more detailed account of the attack on Black Virgin Mountain by 2/2. Ladensack helped Sly research and organize that book. Having read and reviewed No Place to Hide, I highly recommend it for its lessons in leadership—good and bad.
Hard to Kill is also a good read because its stories focus on the men involved in the action. Ladensack describes the behavior of the men he followed and the men he led in ways that bring the reader into the sphere of the moment. He confronts pertinent issues and wastes no time describing mundane things such as the contents of a can of C-rations. Despite his present age, his prose reflects the spirit of a young warrior.
Ladensack’s mentality did not change when he left the Army and spent 1970-86 as a seminarian and Catholic priest in Arizona. He quickly recognized that the church’s most significant problem was child molesters and serial sex offenders within the priesthood.
He identified these men to the police and provided details. His constant pursuit of them resulted in the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O’Brien, taking away his priestly privileges. As Ladensack shows, O’Brien condoned rampant child abuse among priests in his jurisdiction. What’s more, church members and their political allies threatened Ladensack’s life if he continued his crusade.
He went into hiding until near the turn of the century when investigator Mark Stribling under guidance from Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley initiated action against the Phoenix Diocese for decades of sexual abuse by priests. Ladensack aided their cause. Years of legal work produced success frequently limited by judges’ unwillingness to punish religious leaders to the maximum.
Ladensack summarizes his bout with cancer—his final enemy—as follows:
“In 2013, I entered hospice six years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors gave me six weeks to live. Luckily, my life lingered past the doctor’s expiration date.
“I was thrown out of hospice after eighteen months. They told me I wasn’t dying fast enough. That was four year ago. I’m still around, still working to bring Bishop O’Brien and his legions to justice.
“The end may be coming, but I’m still hard to kill.”
Occasionally, Ladensack’s stoicism reaches transcendental heights. His ability to overlook slights and accept disappointment falls beyond my comprehension. His deference perhaps stems from the intensity of his time in the crucible. In other words, the magnitude of his exposure to the anguishes of life has diminished the scope of his ego.
Nevertheless, deep down inside he is damn proud of his survival and his medals.
All I can add is: You have to admire a guy who pursues meaningful causes.
Joe Ladensack’s website is hardtokillbook.com