San Jose resident continues family legacy of military service

San Jose resident continues family legacy of military service
Bill Ryan, Tepas’ grandfather on his mother’s side, with a photographer in Burma during World War II.

San Jose resident and Bolles history teacher Joe W. Tepas followed in his father’s military footsteps. His father, the late Dr. Joseph John Tepas III, was a retired captain and member of the U.S. Navy Medical Corps providing pediatric surgical support to NAS Jacksonville for many years. For the broader Jacksonville community, Tepas was instrumental in the certification of Trauma One as a Level I trauma center at UF Health and helped develop the first regional trauma system for the State of Florida. He also guided the process for Wolfson Children’s Hospital’s designation as a pediatric trauma center.

Serving in the military has been a family heritage. Son Joe’s brother-in-law was a U.S. Navy lieutenant. His uncle (his father’s brother) was in the Air Force. His grandfather (his mother’s father) was a silversmith in New England before joining the Army Air in Burma. He suffered an injury that caused his hand to shake which prevented him from doing silversmithing anymore, so he went to work for the government.

Joe’s grandfather (his father’s father) was exempt from serving because he was a chemical engineer. Instead, he worked for the government doing chemical engineering.

His great grandfather was also in the Army in WWI. His grandmother and all of her brothers served in WWII, each one in a different service, and one of her brother’s sons served in Korea.

Joe’s parents were married in Oakland, Calif., and Joe was born in Maryland. The family moved when his father was transferred to the medical hospital in Norfolk, Va., and then to the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., where Joe and his brother grew up in Avondale and attended St. Paul’s Catholic Church and School.

“I was not certain what I wanted to do after high school,” Tepas said. “I wanted a college degree, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I told my dad that I didn’t want to waste his money, so I was going to join the Navy, figure some things out, earn some money and then pay for college myself.”

Tepas with his father pose on the quarter deck of the USS Boxer (LHD 4). They had just finished their long cross-country drive so that Tepas can report for duty.
Tepas with his father pose on the quarter deck of the USS Boxer (LHD 4). They had just finished their long cross-country drive so that Tepas can report for duty.

Tepas enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1999 and went to boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. He was rated to be a photographer’s mate and went to A School to learn how to process film and do intelligence photography at Fort Meade, Maryland. Then he was transferred to San Diego, California.

“I was on the LHD4, an amphibious assault chip that carried a Marine contingency with it,” Tepas said. “The back of the ship would open up and be flooded so that the amphibious vehicles could back out of it.” Joe was part of the operations division as ship’s photographer – everything from “grips and grins,” to shipboard news to intelligence photography.

“I was always somewhere doing something different,” he said. “They had me in the air and on other ships a lot and going with dignitaries to foreign ships.”

Tepas was on the ship for a year and a half, including Western Pacific deployment for six months.

“We were midway between Hawaii and California when the 9/11 attacks happened,” he recalled. “It was strange learning about it secondhand in an isolated environment.”

His wife, Salena, was supposed to be flying direct to San Diego to meet him, but her flight was diverted to Los Angeles. He had to rent a car to get her. They had gotten married before his deployment in a civil service so that they could onto the waiting list for housing.

“The day we pulled into the harbor I got a call that a house was ready for us,” said Tepas.

They returned to Jacksonville to have a formal wedding at St. Paul’s where all of their siblings and his aunt had been married. Salena Laws Tepas was born in Jacksonville, and then her family moved to St. Mary’s. When Tepas met her in 1997, she was living with her grandparents, Grace and Charles (Chuck) Musulin, in Jacksonville on the Westside. Joe and Salena met and began dating when they both worked at the Italian Oven restaurant in Orange Park.

“Everything took on a different meaning after 2001,” Tepas said. “A lot of us joined the military for the GI Bill but being attacked with such tremendous loss of life caused us to consider how and where we would respond. You’re always doing dangerous things but carrying a weapon in a post-2011 environment intensified our purpose.”

He served for nearly seven years until 2004 when he transitioned off the ship to Naval Air Station North Island across from San Diego to study videography. Then he and Salena relocated back to Jacksonville to be with family. He still hadn’t gotten his bachelor’s degree, so he enrolled at UNF and studied history. After graduation in 2006 he worked as a teacher’s assistant and earned his master’s degree in 2008.

He had also been working part time for Apple computer teaching editing software and doing substitute teaching at The Bolles School’s Upper School. In 2008, Bolles offered him a full-time job teaching history.

“My time in the military is not a central part of my life now, but there are constant reminders like the big American flag and the War Memorial in Upper School’s courtyard, the sound of the National Anthem being played across the river at NAS and the NAS flights over Bolles,” Tepas said. “Right outside my classroom I can see NAS across the river. I’ve been asked to make speeches on campus at Veteran’s Day several years.”

“People not in the military don’t always realize the tremendous sacrifice that wives and kids make. You redefine family when you’re out to sea. The people you serve with become your family. Back at home, the spouses are helping each other.”

“One of the reasons I left the military is that I wanted to start a family and be there when the babies were born,” he said. Salena and Joe have two boys. JJ (Joseph John Tepas IV) is a sophomore at Bolles and is pursuing music production. Patrick, 11, attends middle school at Bolles’ Bartram Campus. They live in San Jose.

“We can walk quicker to the San Jose Campus than we can drive,” said Tepas.

Tepas’ mother, Jean Ryan Tepas, has sold the family home in Avondale and moved to Maryland to be near Tepas’ older and younger sisters. She divides her time there with visits to her home in Crescent Beach.

“I learned so much from serving in the military,” Tepas said. “The main thing is not to take anything for granted. I’ve seen so many parts of the world where people have nothing and live in abject poverty and misery. We have so much abundance, and we can forget how lucky we are. My time in the military gave me a broader perspective and observe different culture which help me think more globally and be openminded about things.”

“A lot of kids at Bolles consider joining the military. I talk to them about the pros and cons, and I always encourage them to finish college first.”

By Karen Rieley
Resident Community News

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