Once a Marine, La Salle County state’s attorney says always a Marine

‘The Corps set the stage for the rest of my life,’ veteran and top prosecutor says

La Salle County States Attorney Joe Navarro speaks to the crowd Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, at Veterans Memorial Park in Peru during a ceremony honoring those who died in the Vietnam conflict. The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall was set up in Peru over the weekend.

His father objected to him enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps. His boss was opposed, too. And each day during boot camp, Joe Navarro wished he had listened.

Navarro, the La Salle County state’s attorney, now is glad he kept his own counsel and toughed it out. The corporal returned home in 1974 with a Bronze Star. He then finished college, earned a law degree and won his first election before age 40.

“I encourage you to serve your country. It is the highest honor you can have.”

—  Joe Navarro, La Salle County state's attorney and Marine veteran

“The Marine Corps really was an experience that set the stage for the rest of my life,” he said.

When not suited up before the judge and jury, the Ottawa native routinely is spotted at veterans celebrations wearing his Marine Corps colors and urging young people to enlist, as he had.

“I encourage you to serve your country,” Navarro told a throng gathered Aug. 26 in Peru to see the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. “It is the highest honor you can have.”

Navarro didn’t grow up dreaming of military service. He said he was a subpar student at Ottawa High School – “I just really wasn’t motivated” – although he had shown mechanical aptitude in shop classes. He learned to weld and signed up for a work-study program at a local auto body shop.

Life took an abrupt turn when a sister’s classmate returned home in his Marine Corps uniform. Bill Bach, a member of the Ottawa High School Hall of Fame, enlisted in the USMC and survived combat in Vietnam. Bach also became fluent in Vietnamese and had a distinguished career with the U.S. State Department.

“That was really the guy who inspired me to go into the Marine Corps,” Navarro said.

There was no support at home, however. His father, also named Joe, served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II and thought the Marines were fodder for the meat grinder of war.

“My father’s statement to me was, ‘They don’t care about their men,’” Navarro said.

Navarro’s boss at the body shop was no more encouraging. Wayne Carlson had served in the Korean War and had about as favorable an impression of the Marine Corps as Navarro’s father. Carlson urged him to stay put and pound out fenders.

Bach remained an admired figure, however, and staying home presented two obstacles for Navarro. First, he didn’t have the tuition for auto body school. Second, his lead foot had caught the attention of the Ottawa Police Department, who once provided him with overnight lodging.

Navarro’s father drove to the jail, asked what offense his son had committed and headed home with an empty passenger seat.

“So I got to spend the night there,” Navarro recalled. “That was a good lesson.”

He said later, “I figured [that] if I stayed in Ottawa I was going to work in the body shop for a while and I was just going to get in trouble.”

Navarro enlisted while still in high school and was shipped to San Diego two weeks after graduation in May 1970. It was a 13-week ordeal, bouncing “nonstop” from classroom instruction to calisthenics to combat training, dawn to dusk.

Were there days when he’d wished he’d stayed in the body shop?

“No, not days – every day,” Navarro said. “The motivation is to really break you down. You’re no longer an individual. You have become a team.”

The barking from the drill instructors stopped only at the rifle range, where he proved himself a crack shot. Navarro had been weaned on BB guns and pellet rifles before taking up small arms. By boot camp, he rated as a rifle and pistol expert, and his prowess got him a rare compliment from the DI.

The ever-handy Navarro applied for the aviation air wing, hoping to work on planes. From San Diego, it was off to Jacksonville, Florida, for six months of training at a Navy-run aviation ordnance school. There, he learned how to load 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, bombs and missiles.

Initially, it didn’t look as if he was headed to southeast Asia. President Richard Nixon had pledged to withdraw from Vietnam by arming the pro-democracy forces of the south with the supplies, weapons and training to finish the fight with the communist-backed north.

Navarro’s first overseas deployment was to Japan in early 1972.

“And that was going to be great – geisha girls, cherry blossoms, what have you,” Navarro said. “Then a couple of offensives started in Vietnam, which the South Vietnamese Air Force could not repel.”

Six weeks after getting to Japan, he and his unit were told to be ready for transfer to the Philippines, a likely entry point into the hot zone. When they landed, the commanding officer announced that they were going to refuel and take off again.

“And we knew where we were going,” Navarro said.

Vietnam was chaotic. Navarro and his unit landed at Bien Hoa Air Force Base and were worked to near exhaustion, walking perimeter at night after loading bombs all day. The Marine Corps eventually sent in an infantry unit to walk the perimeter so Navarro and his comrades could focus on the aircraft.

But Navarro was too close to the action to not see a firefight. On Aug. 1, 1972, the opportunity arrived. Navarro won’t speak of the event, but he earned a Bronze Star with valor for his conduct.

He spent nine months in the country. As his enlistment wound down, he considered applying to be a warrant officer. He changed his mind, aided by a cushy stateside assignment near the beach in Santa Ana, California.

War had been harrowing, and his classes at nearby Saddleback Junior College brought a welcome change of pace.

“Ultimately, I just decided I was going to get out and go home,” he said. “There was no turning back.”

He was discharged in March 1974, determined to graduate college. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and a law degree from John Marshall Law School.

Although law school was arduous – Navarro had started a family and worked summers welding to pay for his law classes – he said more than a few times that boot camp was tougher.

When La Salle County Democrats sought a challenger for incumbent State’s Attorney Gary Peterlin, Navarro caught their eye. Although only five years removed from law school, Navarro had an impeccable service record, graduated with distinction and had forged strong union ties during his time as a pipe fitter.

He won in 1988 and unapologetically took a militaristic approach with his staff.

Longtime prosecutor Todd Martin, now a La Salle County judge, recalled that on Navarro’s office door hung a picture of a Marine bulldog with the words “Ass-chewings given out on a daily basis.”

Navarro acknowledged the sign and the drill sergeant approach. He immediately sent two assistants packing and created an environment where employees hesitantly opened their paychecks, worried there’d be a pink slip inside.

But Martin, whom Navarro hired as an assistant in 1994, said the office environment wasn’t as militaristic as Navarro might like to portray it. Navarro’s expectations were clear and reasonable, although Martin did get a crash course in military jargon.

When Navarro uttered the words “ricky tick,” he learned that it meant “right now.”

“I made the mistake of referring to Joe as a former marine,” Martin said, “and I found out there was no such thing as a former marine, in short order.”

Navarro was handily reelected in 1992 but then made political enemies both in the Republican Party and in his own party. In 1996, GOP newcomer Mike James beat him by 63 votes.

Navarro spent the next 24 years in private practice and encouraged his four children and five grandchildren to follow him into the armed forces. He’s had mixed success on that front, but one of his grandchildren is pursuing a military career.

He returned to the prosecutor’s office in 2000, when Martin was elected state’s attorney and sought an experienced assistant to oversee the felony narcotics division. Navarro was qualified, and the interest was mutual.

“I respect him as a person and as a lawyer,” Martin said. “It was a good fit at the time. And it didn’t hurt that his no-nonsense demeanor wouldn’t hurt the drug division at all.”

When Martin was appointed circuit judge in 2022, the La Salle County Board voted unanimously to install Navarro as state’s attorney.

Navarro immediately refilled the front office with his Marine Corps memorabilia and restored a degree of his militaristic management style, “but I’ve mellowed a lot.”

Ottawa defense attorney Darrell Seigler agreed. Although they are old friends, Seigler and Navarro sat at opposing tables in the courtroom and frequently sparred.

“Back in the ‘80s, he was tough, and he ran the office tough,” Seigler recalled. “He was less in the mood to negotiate.

“He’s still a tough prosecutor and opponent, but I think he’s mellowed with age, as we all have. With age comes experience, and with experience comes wisdom. He’s more flexible and looks to other types of dispositions. We both wisely seek alternatives other than the pure fight.”

It was premeditated murder. La Salle County State's Attorney Joe Navarro disclosed Thursday, June 8, 2023, the details surrounding the June 5 killing of Eric S. Clements of Ottawa. Two people are charged with Clements' murder.
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