Joseph Hamski - Staff Sergeant
- Bronze Star with V (for valor)
- Army Commendation Medal with V (for valor)
- Purple Heart
Joseph was born April 30, 1983 to Mary Ellen and John Hamski in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He joined two older sisters in the family, Jennifer and Nicole, and eventually had a little brother, Thomas. The family moved to Ottumwa, Iowa when Joseph was 7 months old.
Joseph loved the things that all boys his age did at the time. He would build with Legos for hours. When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were popular he had to be a Turtle for Halloween.
As a young boy he spent time with his dad in the YMCA Indian Guide program. He enjoyed making pinewood derby cars and weekend camping, including fishing and canoeing. He and his brother Thomas spent summers riding their bikes to the YMCA for swimming lessons and stopped at the store on the way home to spend their allowance on Little Debbie snacks.
Thomas remembers when Joseph taught him that igloos are NOT made of walrus tusks. Thomas was four and Joseph six. They were in the back seat of the van when Thomas insisted that igloos were made of walrus tusks. Joseph told him he was wrong, they were made of ice. Back and forth it went; walrus tusks - ice - walrus tusks - ice. Suddenly with a thud, Joseph smacked Thomas with his lunch box to drive home the point, hitting Thomas above the eye with the metal buckle. In the rear view mirror Mom saw blood! After a quick check of damages and dropping off the other kids, Thomas was taken to the hospital for stitches. When they got home, Joseph had to be coaxed out from behind the swivel rocker where he had been hiding, afraid that he had really hurt his brother and was in big trouble!
In Middle School, Joseph became involved with activities that allowed him to use his creative imagination. He entered a video competition, making a short film titled “Sammy the Wonder Cat”. He ran around the house with a camera pretending he was the family cat, narrating the whole time from a cat’s-eye viewpoint. This last minute project ended up winning a state level competition that then went on to the national level.
He was involved with a group of friends in Odyssey of the Mind and he entered the Invention Convention with his “No-Slip Slipper”. It was a rubber sole with thumb tacks sticking out of the bottom that could fit on the bottom of the shoe to keep a person from falling on the ice. His mother saw something like it in stores last year and remembered how proud Joe was about his idea.
During high school Joseph developed his talents with music, art, and writing. He played trumpet in the concert and jazz bands. He submitted poetry for the school Chautauqua magazine and was often found drawing characters similar to the Anime characters in his collection of books, movies and comics.
He developed his love of movies while working at the local theater – a place his older sister Nicole and younger brother Thomas also worked. Mom recalls, “I loved sitting at the end of the table when the whole family came together, listening to them banter in movie one-liners. I had no idea what they were talking about but they sure enjoyed themselves.”
Nicole remembers high school years. “Joseph was three years younger than me and it’s never “cool” to have your annoying little brother hanging around. Growing up, we were never in the same school until we were in high school and then he was just a geeky freshman in the band. He sometimes got in trouble for being late to first period class because he relied on me for a ride to school and I never left a minute earlier than I needed to.
I had gym in first period and it didn’t matter if I was late because I had to change into gym clothes right away. However, Joseph had Mrs. Stahlhut, the freshman honors math teacher, who did mind if he was late.”
Nicole goes on – “Joseph never lost his “little kid”. Even in high school, his favorite TV shows were Spongebob Squarepants and PowerPuff Girls. One time I was home from college and we were watching Spongebob. When the theme song line came on - “Drop on the deck and flop like a fish” - he flopped down on the floor and starting wiggling. He loved being silly and loved to laugh and be around things that made him laugh. He giggled at gag gifts and enjoyed them as much as real ones. He liked to meow at cats and moo at cows just to get a reaction.”
Joseph LOVED video games. One year at Christmas, he and Thomas pooled their money to buy a Super Nintendo. The Super Mario Brothers became a part of the family! It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair; which of course led to Nintendo 64, then to the Game Cube and on and on. He never missed an opportunity for the latest and greatest in gaming.
Joseph graduated from Ottumwa High School in May, 2001 and decided to follow his older sister Jennifer to ISU and study computer programming. He continued to play his trumpet and enjoyed concert band. It was a difficult year for him - a time of struggling to figure out exactly what he wanted to do. College didn’t seem like the right fit. He came to understand the need to find something he could love - to commit to it and see it through. He left ISU after spring semester 2002.
Nicole remembers that next summer. “Joseph and I never really hung out until after I graduated from college and came home to student teach. He was home from college and we fell into the same circle of friends. In the months before he left for the Air Force in January 2003, we hung out a lot. I didn’t have many friends in Ottumwa after being gone four years to college, so Joseph and his friends took me under their wing. We spent many nights playing video games.
“We also spent many nights watching movies that no one has ever heard of, including C.H.U.D. - Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. I remember laughing so hard at how amazingly dumb that movie was and still have no idea what it was about. But that was how Joseph and his friends were - they tried to find the most outrageous movies and critique them - like a real-life Mystery Science Theater 3000 - another show we watched together and loved." Who ever thought a little brother could be so cool?
The following August 2002, Joseph went with a buddy and enlisted in the Air Force. Mom says, “It came as a complete shock to me; it was nothing he had discussed before. I vividly remember the night in January 2003 when I dropped him at the Des Moines hotel where he would be picked up to go to basic training. Saying goodbye to my 19 year old kid was so hard. When we went to his graduation from basic training, I was greeted by a man - not the boy I had left in Des Moines. I knew in my heart that he had finally found where he belonged.”
Nicole also remembers that night. “We ate at Perkins for his last civilian meal. Joseph drew me a picture on a scrap of paper. He started with a cloud and a tree and it grew from there. He signed it “Love, your brotha”.
I put it in my purse that night and have never taken it out. It was a reminder of the man he had become and the man I knew others would love as much as I did. Though it took a while for me to warm up to him, once we got close, it was amazing. I learned what a loving, caring person he was.”
She continues,” When I met the man I would marry it was important for me to have Joseph meet him. The first time he was home on leave we invited him over. I wanted Joe to know how happy I was and that my husband and I were right for each other. Since my father had died in 2006, I asked Joseph to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. We weren’t sure Joseph would make it back from Korea for the wedding due to his typical procrastination on filing paperwork but it worked out and the whole family was together.
“This was the first time he told us about the girl he was dating while he was stationed in Korea. She turned out to be something pretty special for him and soon became his wife.”
Joseph was a Staff Sargent working as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician - an “EOD” - one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. He was with the 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron based in Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
In addition to EOD missions, he trained others how to detect and de-activate bombs. During his 10-year career in the Air Force, he was assigned at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida, - Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico and Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. While in Korea from 2007 to 2009, he met and married Air Force Staff Sgt. Maria Christina Magdaleno.
Despite the extreme peril inherent in his work, Joseph survived two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. During his second tour, he told his mother, "I just do my job so that everyone else can do their job. Doesn't matter if it's the military or the little guy selling stuff from a cart on the side of the road."
During his three tours, he participated in nearly 400 EOD missions and countless other operations involving route clearance, dealing with unexploded ordnance and capture of enemy munitions caches and bomb-makers. He was certified in nuclear weapons response. With his expertise, he aided the Secret Service, the FBI, Army Special Forces and the Post Office.
His last commanding office, LTC William Kale, noted his great attitude and dry sense of humor – and his professionalism that made him somebody you wanted on your team. Joseph consistently proved his dedication to duty and ability to perform in the face of the most arduous situations. His Flight Chief, MSGT Harold Hailer, called Joseph, ”A standout airman with outstanding initiative and selfless drive who sets the example for others to follow.”
Joseph lost his life on May 26, 2011, in the volatile Shorabak district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan. He was on his 4th tour and the second to Afghanistan. His unit was assigned to clear a safe area from which they could neutralize a known weapons cache exploited by the enemy. While methodically working to clear the area, he was mortally wounded. He was 28 years old.
Joe’s sister, Nicole, said, “He always thought more about the other person than he thought about himself. He would do anything for anyone. He was a caring person with a huge heart. He was an amazing gift-giver, much more concerned with how much you liked it than what it cost. He was also an amazing gift-getter. Every time Joseph opened a present, no matter what it was, he acted like it was the best thing he could ever get.
His wife Christina recalls his 27th birthday in April 2010. "Joe loved Funfetti - the white cake with sprinkles baked into it - every bite would reveal a burst of color. I skipped work and dedicated my day to making a surprise "cake". I made two dozen Funfetti cupcakes and stacked them on a platter, a candle in each one. When he got home that evening, dinner was cooking and the cake was safely hidden. All he saw was a balloon bouquet and a small stack of presents on the kitchen counter.
“After dinner, I brought up his cake, with all the candles lit. After an embarrassing Happy Birthday sung as silly as possible, he took a very deep breath and blew - lifting up from his seat to get all around the cake - reduced to small over-the-top pushes of breath at the end. By the time he took another breath, his face was engulfed in smoke. To my amusement, over a week, he ate every single cupcake to show me how much he appreciated my efforts. I suggested he take some to work and share, but he refused, saying, “No, they’re mine!” in a funny accent, adding “They don’t deserve any!” I told him several times he didn’t have to finish them but he kept at it and felt so accomplished when he finally ate the last one.”
“He ate the cupcakes to keep me happy. He told me that was all he ever wanted - to keep me happy - and all I ever wanted was his happiness in return."
Joseph accomplished so much in his years in the Air Force. He very likely never realized the number of lives he touched or the impact he had on others across the globe. His commander, LTC William Kale, estimated that his efforts during his tours in Iraq safeguarded over 16,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. His tours in Afghanistan undoubtedly added thousands more to that number. Kale stated, “…he chose to enlist in the Air Force because he wanted a bigger challenge, to serve a higher calling and make a difference in this world. Joe succeeded at all these goals.”
He could have chosen a much easier life, but that just wasn’t his way. Those who knew him well understood that and are proud of the life he lived.
Joseph received two Army Commendation medals for exceptionally meritorious service, the Army Combat Action Badge, the Air Force Achievement and Commendation Medals and the Joint Achievement and Commendation Medals. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor.
He is buried in his hometown of Ottumwa.