Veterans in Profile: Joe Founds

In honor of Veterans Day, I wrote a series of longform profiles on Boston Children's staff who had served or who had family serve in the Armed Forces. These stories appeared on the hospital's intranet. All photos are from the 1955 movie The Long Gray Line.

Almost everyone in Joe Founds immediate family served in the Armed Forces. His grandfather served during the Korean War before joining NASA as an engineer and working on the agency’s first space capsule. Both Joe’s father and mother were captains in the army during the Vietnam War — that’s how they met. And, that Joe’s mother outranked his father at that time became fodder for many family jokes.

Many of Joe’s earliest and most vivid impressions of military service came from the stories his mother told him and his two sisters about her time in the army: moving to Georgia’s Fort Benning, eating salt pills to avoid dehydration after standing in formation in the hot summer sun, having to remain at parade rest — hands clasped behind her back — while ignoring the beads of sweat maddeningly sliding across her skin.

Joe’s father came from a long line of veterans and enlisted as soon as he was eligible. At the time, the military was still drafting men to fill vacancies that hadn’t been filled through voluntary means, but they would not have needed to draft him. “He would never have let it get to the point where he needed to be draft,” Joe explains.

Despite his family’s history of military service, Joe can’t remember giving the idea of enlisting any serious consideration before his mother — seemingly out of the blue — suggested he watch a movie.

A prison...or a looney house

The first thing Martin “Marty” Maher does when he arrives at the United States Military Academy at West Point is ask: “What is this place? Is it maybe a prison, or is it a looney house?”

Marty is the protagonist of the 1955 movie The Long Gray Line and, in the movie, has just traveled from Ireland to work as a dishwasher at West Point. He poses his irreverent question to a corporal after he sees dozens of gray-suited young cadets standing rigidly in formation. Inspecting a row of cadets up close, he asks the same corporal whether they use rope to keep everyone in line.

Marty’s bewilderment only deepens as he settles in. His first night, he witnesses cadets being interrogated on the definitions of leather and milk at dinner, their chins pressed firmly against their chests. And he is incredulous when he learns that some cadets voluntarily turned themselves in for even the most minor infractions — even when they’ve gotten away with their offense.

But whereas, Marty’s first reaction to seeing West Point cadets in formation was to wonder if they were prisoners or insane. Joe was impressed by what he saw: the immaculate uniforms, the cadets’ discipline, their dedication to the academy’s mission and their athletic abilities. “It made me feel excited to be part of something like the U.S. Army,” Joe says.

The film was followed by conversations with his family about West Point, and then by a visit to the academy, and then by an overnight stay, during which Joe shadowed a second-year cadet. Everything Joe saw reinforced his first impression, even the early morning revelry and runs. “Right when we got back from that,” he says, “we decided I was going to try to apply”

“What am I going to do? Not go?”

Before Joe could become eligible to apply directly for admission to the academy, he first needed to secure two congressional nominations from sitting State Senators or Representatives. With help from his mother, who had been heavily involved with the Taunton-school system for years, Joe’s letters asking for sponsorship found their way to the offices of then-Senator John Kerry and then-Representative Joe Moakley, both of whom agreed to sponsor Joe after meeting him in person.

Nominations in hand, Joe was free to begin the application process in earnest. In addition to the usual transcript requests, essay questions and list of extracurricular, Joe needed to pass a grueling physical test and have a few teeth pulled including his wisdom teeth; the academy’s admissions process included a long list of medical exclusions.

Joe had always been a straight-A student and a highly involved member of his school. But even after securing two congressional nominations, he still never considered that he would be accepted and was seriously considering an offer from Northeastern University when he received his acceptance letter. “When I got in, I just said, ‘Wow!’ What am I going to do? Not go?”

And so, two weeks after his high school graduation in June 1996, Joe traveled to upstate New York for basic training.

High School Hero

Joe found a lot to like about life at West Point. It was an honor to be accepted — both General George Patton and President Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated from the academy — and daily life reflected that. Cadets were given new uniforms to wear at all times and instructed to keep them clean and pressed at all times. In addition to a full academic scholarship, they also received a regular paycheck. And upon graduation, cadets were to receive the gold bar of a Second Lieutenant.

But as he settled into life at the academy, Joe found that other parts of the West Point experience didn’t completely agree with him. First-years didn’t get to listen to music or even own games and are rarely allowed to leave. During his first year, he was only once able to see his family — shortly after he finished basic training. And the discipline and structure that Joe had admired from afar proved uncomfortably restrictive in practice.

“Even meals were very stressful because there were a lot of rules that you had to follow,” he explains. If the cadets were eating anything served in slices, for example, they were not allowed to “break the wheel,” by taking a slice that wasn’t the next one. They could not pass the salt without also passing the pepper. They could only have one hand above the table at any time. New cadets were even prohibited from looking up at the ceiling, a rule upperclassmen often tried to trick them into breaking by asking what color the ceiling was.

He also discovered a pervasive need for distinction. Because West Point was, and continues to be, a highly selective school, its cadets were by definition the best of the best: valedictorians, star athletes and leaders of student organizations. Put people with that kind of resume in the same place, Joe explains, and it become much harder for anyone to distinguish themselves. In short order, almost every activity began to feel like a competition. “I looked at everything an opportunity to look bad,” he explains. “It was easy to screw up and let your squad down.”

“If I started to say anything I was going to cry.”

Joe had also forfeited having a summer when he traveled to upstate New York to have his head shaved and begin three “horrible” months of Officer Basic Training. And during the first weeks of training, he was not allowed to call home. For the first time in his life, he was isolated from his entire family.

“When they finally let us make a phone call, I couldn’t do anything except start to cry so I stifled myself, because if I started to say anything I was going to cry,” he explains. Surrounded by upperclassmen and superior cadets, the last thing Joe wanted was for them to see him crying. “They would have never let me live it down. So I just kind of whimpered and my mother knew it was me and she talked to me.”

Months into his first year, Joe discovered that the academy had an unofficial slogan to encapsulate that feeling: “High School Hero, West Point Zero.”

In his hometown of Taunton, Joe’s family and community had a different take; they were enormously proud to know someone who had been accepted into West Point. And perhaps no one was more proud of Joe than his twin sister Mary Ellen. Like Joe, Mary Ellen had never expressed any interest in enlisting. But that changed when Joe was accepted into West Point.

Whenever they were able to speak, she was ravenous for details about the academy and life in the military. “From what my mother told me, she was just amazed and so impressed and proud that I was accepted,” Joe explains. “The year I was gone, she would tell everyone she knew that oh my brother is at West Point and, later, when she went to the National Guard, she made a big deal out of it.”

Mary Ellen’s pride was a source of comfort during a challenging time. But it also made it harder for Joe to admit that he wanted to leave the academy.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Early on in The Long Gray Line, Marty chooses to look the other way when a cadet stays out later than he’s supposed to in order to spend time with a love interest. When Marty later sees the same cadet stiffly marching back and forth in a courtyard as punishment, he becomes enraged; he believes that someone has reported the young man. And when he later learns that the cadet had in fact turned himself in out of respect for the academy’s honor code, Marty is astounded at the young man’s naivety and guileless nature.

“I looked at everything an opportunity to look bad. It was easy to screw up and let your squad down.”

That Honor Code — “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do” — weighed heavily on Joe’s mind during his first year at West Point. At that time, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the controversial military rule regarding LGBT men and women, was still in effect. Every new cadet at the academy was required to sign a document acknowledging that revealing one’s homosexuality could lead to discharge—as could demonstrating “a propensity to engage in homosexual acts.”

When he started at West Point, Joe was gay but not out to anyone who knew him. Like many LGBT cadets before and after him, he signed the document knowing he was taking a risk. In 1996, the same year Joe started at the academy, three female cadets were forced to resign after West Point officials discovered a diary belonging to one of them that revealed their sexual orientation. “That wasn’t the only reason I wanted to leave, but it was part of the reason,” Joe explains. “It was literally illegal for me to express my sexual orientation.”

But the biggest reason he wanted to leave West Point, Joe says, was that he missed his family. For the first time in his life, he was completely isolated from his father and mother and his two sisters and, six months into the year, he decided it was time to go home. But he quickly learned that applying to leave the academy was almost as difficult as applying to be admitted. “If you say you want to leave, that’s a big deal,” he explains.

In order to leave, Joe needed to prove that he had a plan for what he do after West Point; only cadets who were doing well were eligible to withdraw from the academy. Joe’s request was reviewed at every level of command including the Regimental Command and Major, all of whom Joe had to meet with in order to explain his reasons for leaving.

All told, the process took a little more than three months, at the end of which Joe was stripped of his cadet status — cadets are in line to become officers in the Army — and became an NCO or Non-Commissioned Officer. The change meant that, although he was still required to salute anyone with officer status, no one at the academy was required to salute him anymore.

When Joe returned to his hometown of Taunton in spring 1997, it was with a heavy heart. “You feel like a disappointment so it was kind of a really difficult transition year for me,” he says. “But [Mary Ellen] just wanted me to be happy. I remember she said ‘I’m glad you’re around for me to see you.’”

Once more free to direct the course of his life — West Point let him out into the reserves with the rank of specialist so Joe could go to college fulltime — Joe decided to travel as much as possible. He applied to colleges with international business programs and got the opportunity to travel across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, ultimately spending a year in Sweden where he took the minimum number of classes he could get away with and spent as much time traversing the country as possible.

Sandy and boring

Over the course of Marty’s time at West Point – he is, at various points, a dishwasher, an NCO and a swimming instructor who doesn’t know how to swim – his impression of West Point and military life changes. More than anything, it’s the commitment, courage and devotion that the cadets and staff demonstrate every day endears West Point to the scrappy Irish immigrant — so much so that he stays at the academy for 50 years.

The night his son is born, he returns home to find cadets waiting to surprise him with a gift and music. When he suffers a significant loss, it’s the cadets who come to take him home after he has spent the night drinking in a nearby saloon. And when one cadet confesses to Marty that he was temporarily married while on leave — something prohibited by West Point — it’s Marty who cites the academy’s Honor Code this time.

“If you say you want to leave, that’s a big deal.”

Mary Ellen, inspired by Joe, found expression of that same ideal by serving in the National Guard. The words “sandy” and “boring” were about as descriptive as she has ever wanted to be about her two tours of duty, during which she worked on infrastructure projects as part of the 379th Engineering Corps. But Joe will never forget the pride he felt when he saw photos of his sister in first Afghanistan and then Iraq — or the chuckle he got out of seeing her behind the wheel of an 18-wheel truck.

Today, after earning her second master’s degree, Mary Ellen continues that legacy of service as a social worker for disabled veterans. And in Boston, Joe sees those same forces at work at Boston Children’s where he serves as administrative supervisor for the Sports Medicine practice.

As he puts it, “I have always been proud to say that I work at Boston Children’s Hospital. Everyone here is just unbelievably dedicated to the patients, and I feel honored to work with them and do my small part for children and families.”