PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - History on Thursday caught up with a Port St. Lucie man accused of deserting the Army more than four decades ago as the war in Vietnam raged, according to records released Friday and police.
Joseph Robert Counterman, 66, of the 1300 block of Southwest Sudder Avenue, was arrested on a federal felony military desertion warrant.
Records show Counterman officially was declared a deserter from Fort Dix, N.J., in June 1969 — about 16 months after the Tet Offensive. Records show Counterman, a private, enlisted in June 1966 in Pennsylvania when he was 20 years old. His military occupation was listed as cook and his civilian occupation was listed as student.
According to Port St. Lucie Police Officer Darren Lidbetter, Counterman said he'd come back from Korea and realized he was going to be sent to Vietnam.
"He didn't like what was going on, and he didn't want to end up in a body bag," Lidbetter said.
Lidbetter said Counterman said he left the military and joined a religious organization or cult and assumed the name of William Smith. He got married and had children. Lidbetter said his wife died several years ago, and his past caught up to him after applying for Social Security benefits.
"He tried to draw Social Security under his real birth name and that's when the bells and whistles went off," Lidbetter said.
Master Sgt. Frank Sabol, Port St. Lucie police spokesman, said federal officials began investigating and ultimately went to interview Counterman with police.
Lidbetter said Counterman was a little surprised.
"He said that it was always in back of his mind that the Department of Defense might come looking for him, but with it being such a long time he didn't give it much thought," Lidbetter said.
Lidbetter said Counterman was proud of his accomplishments of raising a family and being a husband and thought that might not have happened had he gone to Vietnam.
Troy Rolan, an Army spokesman based at the Pentagon, said Friday there is no statute of limitations on deserting the military.
"It's a federal felony to desert the Army," Rolan said. "That warrant is issued for your arrest. It's going to be out there until it's served."
Rolan said that after 30 days, Counterman would have been considered dropped from the Army rolls, meaning not getting paid and not on active duty.
"He's considered a deserter at that point," Rolan said.
Once a soldier leaves or deserts, a federal warrant is issued for arrest.
He didn't know whether it was common for someone to be picked up after so many years, but said he's never gotten a call about it before.
"If there's a federal warrant out for your arrest, you can't really run, you can't really hide," he said.