Remembering the life and service of a great Minnesotan
September 2, 2016 (ST. PAUL, Minnesota) — With services over two days at Minnesota’s historic Fort Snelling and Camp Ripley, family, friends and the military community sought to honor and celebrate a life well-lived by General John W. Vessey, Jr., who enlisted as a private in the Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Red Bull Infantry Division in 1939 and ended his 46-year military career as the 10th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“They just don’t make them like General Vessey anymore,” said Gen. Daniel Allyn, Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. “And that is why, rather than refer to him as John or Jack, the man we hold in reverence and honor today will forever be known to all of us in uniform as General.”
Vessey passed away August 18, 2016, in North Oaks, Minnesota, just over a year after his wife, Avis, of 69 years. In 94 years, Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. lived a large and full life, leaving a lasting impression on not only his immediate family and friends, but on a local, national and global scale during his military career and beyond.
“My mother and father took their humble Minnesota values – faith, humor, love, hard work and true grit – on the road to a world-wide mission. As it turns out, it was a successful endeavor,” said Sarah Vessey, daughter of General John W. Vessey Jr.
As a Service member, Vessey’s career was filled with remarkable achievements: receiving a battlefield commission in World War II; moving up the enlisted ranks from private to first sergeant before entering the officer ranks and rising from second lieutenant to four-star general and serving as the last four-star World War II combat veteran on active duty.
Throughout the Celebration of Life for Vessey, one theme was central to each remembrance: Vessey was a man who never forgot what it meant to be a Soldier, whose life was spent taking care of and looking out for those he led. It was a sentiment said best by President Ronald Reagan at Vessey’s retirement in 1985:
“Jack Vessey always remembered the soldiers in his ranks; he understood those soldiers are the back bone of any army. He noticed them, spoke to them, looked out for them. Jack Vessey never forgot what it was like to be an enlisted man, to be just a GI.”
Even after his impressive military career ended, Vessey continued serving his country as a special emissary to Vietnam to ensure the recovery of personnel missing from the Vietnam War. He stayed informed about current events and continued to be an advocate for Service members.
“General Vessey’s service to our nation did not end when he hung up his uniform,” said Allyn. “Presidents, think tanks and religious leaders alike called on him for his candid advice and his reputation for getting things done. He combined conviction and thoughtfulness with a respectful approach to champion important causes like the repatriation of missing Vietnam veterans, the prevention of conflict and, as a man of deep faith, support to Lutheran charities.”
It was his deep faith and moral character that many best remember of Vessey who served during a time in our nation’s history that was uncertain.
“General Vessey’s life and the way he lived it – a combination of courage, commitment and character – is the example we all aspire to achieve,” said Allyn. “The man we honor today – a Soldier’s Soldier – served as a steady hand for our nation during some of the most challenging days in the battle against tyranny.”
From humble beginnings, Vessey rose to the highest levels of military leadership, but in his own words he was always, “A general in the army, but a private in the army of the Lord.”
by Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens
Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs