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THE WAR INSIDE: The tragic tale of Vietnam vet Jeff Junkins of La Jolla

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La Jolla native Jeff Junkins peers stoically into the camera shortly after arriving in Vietnam in 1964.
(COURTESY AMBER SPERL)

In late October 1968, U.S. Army Corporal Jeffrey Junkins and his best buddy, Sgt. Gary Matson, were installing M16 landmines near Mai-Loc, their Vietnamese base camp. “Bouncing Bettys” the devices were nicknamed, because they sprang 3 feet into the air before exploding their shrapnel directly into the heads and chests of their doomed trippers.

Suddenly, Junkins found himself sprung into the air and flung 20 feet away. After regaining consciousness, he realized that Matson had set off a previously installed Bouncing Betty. He also realized that he was covered in Matson’s flesh, brains and teeth — many of which had embedded themselves into his skull. Finally, he realized that he was now lying atop another Bouncing Betty — one destined to detonate as soon as his body lifted off its pressure sensor.

Fellow Green Berets, responding to the explosion, commanded Junkins to lie perfectly still. Several hours of drama transpired as they tried to safely get to him and then to deactivate the landmine.

That bomb didn’t go off. But on May 14, 1999 — 20 years ago next Tuesday — another one did. Junkins intentionally overdosed on prescription opioids.

Good morning, Vietnam

Junkins enlisted in 1964, the year after he graduated La Jolla High School, spurred on by President John F. Kennedy’s “ask what you can do for your country” speech.

This photo shows Junkins at the top-secret Studies and Observations Group at Phu Bai, South Vietnam. He is wearing a helicopter crewmember helmet and protective vest.
This photo shows Junkins at the top-secret Studies and Observations Group at Phu Bai, South Vietnam. He is wearing a helicopter crewmember helmet and protective vest. COURTESY JOHN STRYKER MEYER/'ON THE GROUND'

“He was very proud of his Vietnam service,” said Azad Abbasi, who chatted recently about his old friend in front of Junkins’ plaque at the Mt. Soledad National Veteran’s Memorial. “But it was a double-edged sword because it pretty much broke him.”

Junkins was in the thick of a secret war waged by the Studies and Observations Group (SOG), a joint unconventional warfare task force operated by the Pentagon from 1964 to 1972.

“He ran recon missions for the deadliest operation of the entire Vietnam War,” said John Stryker Meyer, who befriended Junkins on a Vietnam-bound plane in 1968 and resumed their friendship in California 17 years later. (Meyer wrote a 2007 book about SOG, “On the Ground,” which details Junkins’ landmine nightmare.)

“At one point, SOG’s casualty rate exceeded 100 percent,” Meyer said, “because some people were wounded multiple times.” (Junkins earned at least two purple hearts, Meyer said.)

Happier times

Junkins — who would have turned 74 on Valentine’s Day — was raised by an overprotective Jewish mother who divorced his father early on. He had a standard-issue La Jolla childhood — loving the outdoors, building up his surfing chops, getting into minor mischief including marijuana.

Like all of his former friends interviewed for this article, lifetime La Jolla resident Doug Moranville described Junkins as a good surfer and great person — fiercely loyal to his friends, but also “just plain fierce” if you crossed him.

“He had a real violent streak I saw once or twice,” Moranville said, “but never any sadness — ever. He was a happy kid.”

Performing reconnaissance under heavy Viet Cong fire was Junkins’ final Vietnam mission, though he didn’t intend it to be. The impact of the shrapnel literally blew him out of the helicopter as it crashed, irreparably damaging his lower back and hip.

Home surf

When Junkins returned to La Jolla on Army disability, he hid his chronic pain and dove back into surfing and his old social circles. Bill Fitzmaurice, current president of the Windansea Surf Club, met him on the very first day Fitzmaurice moved to La Jolla from Brazil in 1971.

“There was this local surfing legend at the time who I was so stoked to get to meet and surf with,” Fitzmaurice said, declining to mention the legend’s name. “But he was so obnoxious, so uncool, he cut me off five times and ran me over. So I just walked up to the guy and punched him in the face.”

Then, Fitzmaurice recalled, he received a hard poke on the shoulder. It was Junkins.

“I thought I was going to get beaten up and told never to surf Windansea again,” he said. “Instead, Jeff told me that was the coolest thing he’d ever seen and we became friends for the rest of his life.”

To supplement his disability, Junkins worked manual-labor jobs until 1981, when he and a girlfriend, Helen, founded La Jolla Surf Systems, 2132 Avenida De La Playa — which still is operated by Doug Marshall, the owner they eventually sold the business to. That same year, Junkins was elected president of the Windansea Surf Club himself — though he only served for a year before forming his own surf club, Club Windansea, which featured a grenade as its logo.

“I don’t know why he formed his own club,” Fitzmaurice said. “He probably just disagreed with where the main club was going. Jeff was seriously hardcore. He was nuts. In a lot of ways, La Jolla back then was like an insane asylum if the walls fell down and nobody left.”

Hurt locker

As the years since Vietnam turned into decades, Junkins’ pain got harder to hide.

“He told me that, in the morning, he couldn’t pick up his legs,” Meyer said. “Maggie (his mother) would have to come in and lift his legs so he could just get out of bed.”

Friends say his emotional agony was nearly equivalent.

Azad Abbasi speaks about Junkins  in front of his late friend's plaque at the Mt. Soledad National Veteran’s Memori
Azad Abbasi, wearing his old Club Windansea T-shirt with the grenade logo, speaks about Junkins in front of his late friend's plaque at the Mt. Soledad National Veteran’s Memorial. COREY LEVITAN

“He was very functioning and stoic until his late 40s,” said Abbasi, who met Junkins when they were neighbors living in the cottages behind Pannikin Coffee & Tea in 1982. “Then, things started coming out.”

Abbasi often asked Junkins about Vietnam, but he said the landmine story never came up until at least a decade into their friendship. “I remember he told me that when the paratroopers came over, he could see in their eyes that they were sure he wouldn’t make it,” Abbasi said.

Although the Veterans Administration (VA) now understands how to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, at the time, “it was like, ‘Here’s some pills, go away,’ ” Abbasi said. “They were giving him massive quantities of Valium. Whether he was asking for more, I don’t know, but it did not help.”

MIA child

Also weighing heavily on Junkins’ psyche was the daughter he didn’t get to see until she was 13 — and after that only about 30 more times.

“A total of a month we spent together, which is incredibly sad when you say it out loud — that I only spent a month with my dad,” said Amber Sperl, who is now 42 and lives in Phoenix with her own two sons and a daughter.

Sperl’s mother was an earlier girlfriend who dated Junkins for about two years. (Sperl said she doesn’t want her name published.)

“Maggie never wanted my mom to have me,” Sperl said. “So my mom was very careful not to get back in touch, because she thought Maggie and my dad would take me and she would never see me again.”

The 30 visits occurred during a brief window of détente around 1990, when Sperl’s mother took pity on Junkins and decided to give him another chance. She even let him attend Sperl’s 13th birthday.

“But my dad was drinking a lot by then,” Sperl said. “And I know he smoked pot, and all the pills the VA had him on, he just kind of fell off the wagon and my mom cut him off again.”

After that, Meyer said, Junkins told him he would watch Sperl play in the Muirlands Middle School playground once or twice a week without her knowledge. “He had a couple of secret spots to watch her from,” Meyer said. “It was a very sad situation.”

For a few years, Junkins dropped off Valentine’s Day and birthday cards for his daughter at her school’s front office. “I still have every one of those cards,” Sperl said.

A few months before his suicide, Abbasi said, Junkins told him: “Hey, we should go downtown and I’ll put stuff in your name in case something happens to me.”

“I didn’t think anything of it at the time,” Abbasi said. “I was like, ‘Dude, you’re only 53. What’s going to happen to you?’ The signs were there, I just didn’t see them.“

Peace at last

Junkins spent his final days focused on getting 100 percent benefits from the VA, with his mother as the beneficiary.

“It was a long, painful fight,” Meyer said. “But he got it lined up, and once he did, he bought a nice apartment in La Jolla for them both and that was it.”

It was the apartment where Maggie found her son’s body and the suicide note. The funeral, with 21-gun salute, was at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Maggie was cremated and interred there herself — alongside Junkins — only six months later.

“It didn’t surprise me that she went so soon after he did,” Abbasi said. “They were so close and she was never the same after that. She was very bitter about what Vietnam had done to her son.”

Sperl didn’t even know her father was dead until a year later. She had received a random letter from a company that takes on clients who could be owed money. On a whim, she filled out the form and forgot about it. After receiving a voicemail mentioning “the estate of Maggie Junkins,” Sperl immediately called back and was told that her grandmother had died and she was her only living heir.

“Only living heir?” Sperl recalled asking the man on the phone. “What about my dad?!”

Junkins’ friends had tried to reach Sperl to invite her and her mother to the funeral, but couldn’t track them down. So the worst news of Sperl’s life to that point had to be broken to her by a complete stranger.

“I remember my mom and I just cried,” she said.

Sperl said she doesn’t blame or resent anyone. “It’s just so unfortunate the way things turned out,” she said. “We could have been so close today. He could know his three grandchildren. And I guarantee I wouldn’t be living in Phoenix.

“I wish now more than ever that he was still here,” she said.


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