San Anselmo soldier
Joe Bilitzke will get new orders
Tuesday. His new commanding officer,
wife Darlene, will probably march him
down to the nearest men's clothier and
help him pick out a new wardrobe.
helicopter pilot and tactical aviation
instructor hasn't known much other than
a military uniform, having served in the
U.S. Army for more than four decades - a
highly unusual feat, according to
rare to have someone stay in for 40
years," said Lt. Col. Brad Upton, chief
of operations for the Army's 91st
Division at Camp Parks in Dublin. "At
any point, you could get shipped
somewhere to fight. You're always
rolling the dice. É He's faced it year
after year after year."
Bilitzke, who will
retire as a level 4 chief warrant
officer, served active duty in Viet-
nam and then was
mobilized twice as a reservist, first in
Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, south of
the Iraqi border, and more recently as
an intelligence officer with the Army's
"What is he going
to wear now?" his wife, Darlene Darata,
asked. "He still has every single
uniform he's worn, totally pressed
and in perfect
condition. His closet is filled with
fatigues and every drawer has the same
brown military shirts and socks. I don't
know if he has any other clothes. He'll
probably just wear shorts and a T-shirt
Bilitzke said, "I
never really thought about it, but I've
been playing soldier since I was a kid.
It just seemed like the thing to do.
It's just something I've always done."
Bilitzke will celebrate his 62nd
birthday, but the day will also mark the
end of his highly decorated military
service; he has reached his mandatory
retirement date and is moving on to a
new chapter of his life.
looking forward to some travel," said
Bilitzke, who has more than two dozen
medals of commendation, including the
Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service
Award, the Bronze Star with Valor, the
Air Medal with Valor and the Purple
On April 7, Maj.
Gen. Bruce E. Zukauskas, commanding
general of the 91st Division at Camp
Parks, presented Bilitzke with the
Legion of Merit medal for his years of
earliest recollections put him in a
military uniform, as an old
depicts him at age 3.
As a boy, he spent his summers at
Mullett Lake in northern Michigan.
The son of a World
War II Air Force pilot, Bilitzke grew up
in Okemos, Mich., always dreaming of
being a pilot.
When he was 14, he
joined the Civilian Air Patrol. He was a
member of the ROTC program at Michigan
State University. He joined the military
in 1966, enrolling at the Army Aviation
School at Fort Rucker, Ala. After
graduating in 1968, he arrived in
Vietnam, two weeks before the Tet
assigned to the 281st Assault Helicopter
Company as a counterintelligence
helicopter pilot. He flew more than
1,300 combat hours and survived being
shot down three times. The unit's slogan
was "Death on Call."
As a member of the
Army's special operations helicopter
unit, the forerunner of today's Delta
Force, Bilitzke's missions involved
inserting special operations teams
behind enemy lines and were done hastily
and conducted under enemy fire most of
During one of
those extractions, Bilitzke's helicopter
crash-landed after it was shot down by
AK-47 gunfire. One team member was
killed in the aircraft and another was
shot off a rope ladder. For his bravery,
Bilitzke was awarded the Purple Heart.
"The recovery team
stopped counting at 67 holes in the
helicopter," Bilitzke said. "Our job was
to keep them alive. We put them in a
hole and we pulled them out of the hole.
You didn't think about the danger. You
just did what you were trained to do and
fly as you were trained to fly."
transitioned to another helicopter and
became senior fire team leader. He left
Vietnam in April 1969. After the
conflict, Bilitzke was a helicopter
gunship tactical instructor at Fort
transferred to the Army reserves in
1974. During Desert Storm, Bilitzke flew
medical evacuation missions. His last
duties were with the Army's 91st
Division headquarters at Camp Parks.
officer in Vietnam was Maj. Jack Mayhew,
now retired and living in Maryland.
Bilitzke and Mayhew have maintained
their friendship over the years.
"He had the most
dangerous job in the outfit," said
Mayhew, now 73. "The problem wasn't
getting the troops on the ground. It was
if they got trapped or compromised. If
it went bad at that point, it went bad
quickly. Joe was one of those guys you
could count on day in and day out, no
matter what he had going on.
"He was the most
professional soldier that I ever served
with, a top-notch pilot, who just did
his job extremely well. He demanded a
high degree of respect from everyone. He
was always ready to go."
Bilitzke first met
Darlene Darata in Vienna, Austria, in
1979. They dated off and on for a number
of years and were married Feb. 29, 2000,
at the Ventana resort in Big Sur on the
"It was pretty
amazing how we found each other again,"
said Darata, who owns a design and
decorating business in Sausalito. "We
both realized we were heading in the
same direction finally."
reservist years, Bilitzke co-owned and
eventually took over an industrial
theater production company based in San
Francisco. When he got his last
assignment, Bilitzke decided to sell the
business to the employees because he
couldn't run the business at the same
married, Bilitzke took up residence with
Darata in her spacious San Anselmo home.
Together, they look after a Labrador,
Bilitzke plans on
keeping occupied by continuing his
20-year association with the Vietnam
Helicopter Pilots Association, for which
he formerly served as a board member and
president. He is in charge of planning
the group's annual convention.
For the past 31Ú2
years, Bilitzke has spent his time in a
hotel room in Dublin.
"The military was
really his commitment, that's what he
does," Darata said. "We really haven't
lived together yet. I think we're both
ready for the next part of our lives,
whatever that might hold. We really
don't dwell much on the past. We're
planning our life together, looking