BENNINGTON -- Two battles with cancer and the loss of his wife all came within the 12 years Select Board Chairman Joseph Krawczyk Jr. has served in politics. While he feels it was time well spent, Krawczyk said it's time to move on.
Krawczyk, 66, whose term expires in March, said he is not seeking reelection to the seat. He will, however, finish the remaining 18 months of his term as president of the Vermont Veterans Home Board of Trustees.
A retired Army colonel, Krawczyk was elected to the select board in 2001. In 2004 he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma which caused him to take a year off. He also served four terms as a Republican in the state House of Representatives, but lost his District 2-1 seat to Democrat Brian Campion in 2011, the same year he was elected as the select board's chairman.
Born and raised in Bennington
Born and raised in Bennington, Krawczyk was drafted into the Army shortly before he turned 20. He spent his 21st birthday in a rice paddy in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. "It was 1969, 1970, I was in Vietnam, I was a platoon leader and troop executive officer for another cavalry unit," he said.
Krawczyk was awarded a Silver Star medal and four Bronze Star medals for his service in combat, during which time was wounded twice. "Both times with rocket propelled grenades, hit my vehicle and exploded," he said.
He nearly lost his pinky finger in one of the blasts. A piece of shrapnel left the finger hanging by a thread of skin, so he was given a large dose of painkillers and flown to a field hospital where the surgeon saw a quick solution to the problem.
"He says, ‘Well, this is easy, we're just gonna cut the finger off and seal it up.' I says, ‘If I wake up and that finger is gone, you had better be gone.' So I woke up the next morning and they had a big roll of gauze here, and they had it all stitched up," Krawczyk.
He said he was fortunate, as he had been holding a radio to his face when the shrapnel hit and had his hand not been in that position the damage might have been to his face. His second shrapnel wound was less severe, but it left him with a limp.
After his enlisted time was up, he had the option of attending flight school or officer candidate school. He chose the latter and ultimately rose to the rank of colonel. He was a war planner in South Korea for a time, but spent most of his military stint in Europe, however the army has sent him to places like Panama and North Africa as well.
He commanded two Cavalry squadrons and a regiment while in Europe during the end of the Cold War. "My squadron had security of the Czech border from Austria to East German border. The day the (Berlin Wall) came down, I got to see that. I was one of the first Americans to step back into Czechoslovakia after the wall came down. Legally," he said.
His last assignment before retiring from the military in 1994 was commanding a large combat tank brigade in Europe. There, in 1984, he met his wife, Claire Wagner. They courted for five years, and because Krawczyk was stationed three hours away from where she worked as a civilian contractor, they carried their relationship on via telephone. Krawczyk jokes it was the phone bills that led to them getting married.
Once he was retired from the army, Krawczyk returned to Bennington and worked at local hardware store H. Greenberg and Sons. It was from there he decided to run for office after having the chance to speak with many members of the community about state and local politics.
He was appointed to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee because at the time he had an interest in Act 250 reform. By the time he left the legislature, he was the committee's vice chairman.
"I think it was beneficial for the town to have a representative both on the board and in the legislature, because obviously a lot of statutes passed in Montpelier affect the town operations," he said.
Krawczyk had surgery for melanoma in 2004 after serving two terms on the board. He then took a year off to make sure he was completely recovered, but not long after was diagnosed with prostate cancer. That, however, did not require him to interrupt his service to the town.
"My cancer is in remission and I feel I'm in pretty good health, but about two years ago my wife died, and there were things her and I wanted to do after I retired from the military that we didn't do because of my obligations both as a legislator and select board member," he said. "We just didn't feel we had the time to get away and do as much traveling as we wanted to do and things of that sort."
Krawczyk has two adult daughters, one who lives in the United States and, notably, married his former body guard who was assigned to him in the military. The other is a lieutenant colonel in the Army and is stationed in England. The latter is getting married later this year, Krawczyk said, which is timely because his former regiment, which is currently in Afghanistan, will soon be moved to Germany. He and other former commanders have been asked to speak at the welcoming ceremony, but spending time with his children and grandchildren is how he hopes to spend most of his time.
"I've had the pleasure of working with some great people on the select board," Krawczyk said. He said he is proud of having worked with board members to pass reasonable budgets that voters have supported, and he is proud of the town employees who have won themselves accolades from various recognition groups.
Krawczyk said one of his main disappointments was not being able to get the Johnson Controls site in Bennington rezoned as a commercial property.
As a veteran, Krawczyk is often asked to speak at schools and before local clubs and groups. That he will continue to do, when asked, and he also plans to continue his visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where three of his friends have their names listed.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.