Joseph McGovern gained experience as a volunteer medic during the Bosnian War
By Hilary Reeves
Tropical Company Driver Joseph McGovern was running ahead of schedule on the morning of Thursday, May 11th. His alarm was set to 4:30 a.m., but he was already awake when it went off. He showered, took the dog out, and was out the door with more than enough time to get to work. He decided to stop for coffee en-route at a local Dunkin’ Doughnuts.
“Seconds after I pushed inside, a man staggered in and sat down in a chair,” said McGovern. “My first instinct was to think he fell down, but he mumbled that he had been robbed and shot.”
Another bystander called 9-1-1 while McGovern put on a pair of plastic gloves he found behind the counter, grabbing several aprons as well. He took the man’s shirt off and found three entry wounds – one to the mouth and two to the torso. He instructed the still-conscience man to hold one of the aprons to the wound to his face while McGovern put his body weight into applying pressure the others.
“The staff was stunned,” he said. “I went after the gloves not necessarily to protect myself, but to prevent the germs on my hands from infecting the wounds. Most people who die under these circumstances actually die from wound infections. I told him to apply pressure to his face wound because it helped me keep track of whether or not he was conscious. As his arm started dropping away from his face, I would try to engage him, keep him awake.”
The police arrived first, then the medics. When McGovern was relieved, he stepped outside and noticed the parking lot had been taped off. His first thought: he had to get to work. The police allowed him to leave, and he showed up for his shift pale, his adrenaline finally kicking in.
“One of my co-workers asked what had happened, and soon after, a member of the management staff came over and I told the story to him. He told me that if anything like that happened again, I should just call and they would work around it,” he laughed.
Two weeks later, McGovern was presented with the Tropical Shipping President’s Award for Heroism at the company’s headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“I found out a few days later that the man who was shot was in his food truck going to work, pulled into the Dunkin’ Doughnuts for coffee, and was then shot and robbed. The assailant stole the truck and crashed it into a news station’s fence. They haven’t caught the guy yet, as far as I know.”
But the man who was shot survived. And despite the fact that he’s “sort of famous now,” McGovern said he’s actually quite shy.
“I’ve worked with real heroes, and I don’t count myself with them. I’ve seen regular people do incredible things. Extraordinary things.”
An Clochán Liath
McGovern was born and raised in the Irish city of Dungloe, a coastal fishing village geographically further north than Belfast, but part of Southern Ireland. A river that for many years could only be crossed via a grey granite slab lying in the riverbed prompted the town’s Irish name, An Clochán Liath: the grey stepping-stone.
McGovern’s first job was fishing.
“In those days, we fished for herring, mackerel, salmon – year-round for all the cold-water fish, the white fish,” he said. “When the big fishing trawlers started coming in, we did a lot of crab fishing, and they still do it today.”
McGovern was 16 when he left on his first summer fishing trip.
“I did a salmon season in the middle of the summer. I made more money than I ever had before, enough to buy a nice car at the end of the season. I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’ I wanted to go to school to get my captain’s license. But then winter came, and I went to do the winter season, and what I considered a serious storm, I don’t think other people thought was all that serious,” he laughed. “I was sick, sick like I’ve never been sick since.”
After graduating high school, McGovern instead became a firefighter. His father was the Dungloe fire chief, and, at 19 years old in 1987, McGovern was the youngest firefighter to have completed the program. But after a few months of strictly volunteer service, he had to give it up. He needed to earn a living.
“My uncle owned a trucking company and I used to work washing out the beds,” he said. “I started driving trucks for him – all across (mainland) Europe. It was an incredible experience, and for a young person, the money was very good.”
One freezing day in the summer of 1992, McGovern was passing the time in a pub in his hometown.
“The fellow sitting beside me was a bright lobster-color, he was ‘Irish-tan,’ if you will, and I asked why he was so tan, and he said he’s just come back from Bosnia. I said, ‘why were you in Bosnia? There’s a war going on.’ And he said he volunteered over there as a medic. And I – jokingly at the time – asked him what the number was to volunteer. He gave it to me, and I called.”
The Red Cross asked McGovern to travel to Dublin. When he got there, after hours of driving, he realized he had left his driver’s license behind.
“They wanted to see my license, but I didn’t have it, so they asked if the police knew me, and I told them they did. So they called up the local police chief and asked, ‘What kind of a guy is he,’ and the chief said, ‘he’s a fine lad.’ They asked if I had a passport and then when I was available to leave,” he laughed.
McGovern spent the next two years as a war medic. After two weeks in Ireland receiving medical clearance (“the doctor had no way of knowing where we were going, so he gave everyone the ‘Africa shots,’ he laughed) and participating in an intensive Red Cross first-aid training course, he was sent to Zagreb, now the capital city of Croatia, then a part of Yugoslavia. Because McGovern spoke conversational French and German, and was readily picking up the local language, he was quickly stationed in the worst fighting area: Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Every eight weeks on the front line afforded him four days off – but there was no way for him to return to Ireland. It was 1993, and he was 25 years old.
“I was still pretty young at the time,” he said. “I wasn’t in any way a big player or anything. I was driving, and involved in a couple of horrific things that happened, but I was able to stay calm. I regretted my decision to go many times during and since. I don’t really like to talk about it, actually. My kids didn’t even know until we moved houses and they found an old picture of me.”
What made his experience especially difficult, he said, is the blurry nature of war.
“When you’re out there with no side, and you’re strictly neutral, you start feeling conflicted,” he said. “When I met the Croatian people, I thought, ‘well, these are the good people.’ Then I went to Bosnia and thought, ‘no, these must be the good people and (the Croatian people) are the bad people.”
The experience felt not unlike his own childhood in Ireland, when Northern Ireland, mostly Protestant and wanting to remain in the United Kingdom, actively engaged majority-Catholic Southern Ireland, who wanted autonomy.
“The majority of Croats are Catholic, so when I went over there, I presumed that they were the same as me, so they must be ‘right,’ he said. “But what I quickly learned is there’s bad on every side and there’s good on every side.”
McGovern returned to Ireland in 1994 and ran into an acquaintance, whom he remembered meeting in 1988 at the Mary From Dungloe International Festival.
“There’s a pageant to find out who has the spirit of the festival, and that person’s crowned ‘Mary From Dungloe,” he said. “Anyway, my future wife was in the pageant that year representing New York, where she was from.”
The couple married in 1996 and moved to Florida, where they were going to spend a year before selling the house she’d been living in.
“Well, the year’s not up yet,” said McGovern, laughing.
The couple has lived in Florida ever since, adding a son and daughter, now 19 and 16, respectively. McGovern worked several trucking jobs over the years, including several years of over-the-road driving, but said his family needed him to stay closer to home. A job at Interstate led to a position at Tropical. He joined the company in April, just weeks before that fateful morning at Dunkin’ Doughnuts.
“You’d be shocked at how people I knew reacted when they heard I’d gotten on at Tropical,” he said. “My neighbors were like, ‘you are so lucky.’ The company has such an incredible reputation in the community. You know, driving over-the-road – you get used to being alone, and I think I had gotten to a point where I wasn’t as friendly, but I’m coming back out of my shell since I joined Tropical. I feel like I have a whole new lease on life.”
McGovern hasn’t been back to Ireland in 12 years.
“First of all, I haven’t had a drink in 18 years – and that’s a hard thing to maintain in that country,” he laughed. “Also, I have family scattered throughout the country now and I have to spend the whole damn time traveling about.”
Believe it or not, he reiterated, he’s very shy.
“People are coming up and talking to me now,” he said. “I don’t know who they are. I don’t want them to think I’m some special person. I always say I’m the one who’s watched ordinary people doing incredible things. There was this young woman in charge of me in Bosnia. She was only two or three years older than me. She was incredible in the way she organized people to do things and handled situations. When you’re blessed to work with people like that, you naturally rise.”