By Dawn Krebs
PORT ST. LUCIE - His blond hair now gray, a man living in Port St. Lucie was arrested on Sept. 13 after it was discovered he deserted the Army in 1969, 43 years ago, according to documents from the Department of Defense.
Joseph Robert Counterman, 66, of 1302 S.W. Shudder Ave., was a private in the U.S. Army and working as a cook in Fort Dix when he was reported absent in May 1969.
A military person is reported as going "absent without leave," or AWOL when they do not report to their assigned duty. After 30 days, the designation is changed to military desertion.
Reaction to the news was mixed among veterans in the area.
Robert Jordan, a Port St. Lucie resident, served for 30 years in the Navy, retiring in 1992.
"He needs to go to prison," Mr. Jordan said. "I did my time in the military about the same time as he did, and didn't run away from my responsibilities. I'm glad he was caught."
Others were more sympathetic.
"He probably thought they weren't looking for him anymore," said Doris Cantfield, who is from Orlando but was visiting family in Port St. Lucie. Ms. Cantfield's late husband, Joe, was in the Army.
"It was a scary time for people back then. Whenever (her husband) left, I never knew if he was coming back or not. I can understand why he did it, if that was the reason."
Military desertion is a felony, and there is no statute of limitations for it, which means the federal warrant has been in the system for the past 43 years.
The documents went on to state that Mr. Counterman first enlisted in June 1966 in Pennsylvania. Other than his blue eyes and blond hair, the only other physical identifying mark the government had to find him was a scar on one of his fingers.
It is believed Mr. Counterman, who was now retired, was going by the name William Smith.
A Port St. Lucie police officer who served the military desertion warrant confirmed Mr. Counterman's identity through his birth certificate information before arresting him. It wasn't clear how the military found where he currently lived, as the house is in his wife's name. The police department declined further comment on the matter.
He was taken to the St. Lucie County jail, and later transported to Fort Stewart in Georgia.
According to an Army public affairs officer, the names of all deserters are entered into the National Crime Information Center, a database that cross references law-enforcement offices and other government agencies. Deserters can be identified by anything from an arrest to applying for disability or social security benefits.
"Very rarely do (deserters) go to jail," said the PAO. "The vast majority are released with an other-than-honorable discharge."