Leaving top job in St. Charles Parish, V.J. St. Pierre Jr. reflects on ambush that propelled him into politics _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Outgoing St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre.

St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre Jr. still tears up when he talks about the harrowing Vietnam ambush that caused him to lose his left leg and right pinky finger. And as he prepares to leave elected office after eight years in the top parish post, he says that event was a primary reason he got into politics and has continued to serve.

The near-fatal attack endeared him to his hometown. “I know very well it was the main reason I was elected,” he said.

And the welcoming embrace he received on his return home forever endeared the parish to St. Pierre.

“It made me want to give something back to them and made me decide to run for office,” he said.

The response he received when he returned to Destrehan in 1968 — about 600 people, waving American flags, were waiting for him with a big cake — was in stark contrast to the 13 months he had spent in Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California.

There, he and his fellow disabled veterans would sit in their wheelchairs on one side of the street waving American flags while protesters across the street burned their draft cards.

Vernon Joseph St. Pierre was 22 and had served only three months when he was shot 11 times in Vietnam. The medevac helicopter attempting to rescue him exploded after taking enemy fire. He woke up four weeks later in a Da Nang hospital to news that his leg would have to be amputated above the knee.

Now, nearly 50 years later, he hopes to create a memorial to all St. Charles residents who died in military combat as one of his last acts before he leaves office in December. Term limits prevent him from running again.

Asked whether he has any advice for the next parish president, he said, “Don’t take nothing for granted and always make sure you cover your back.”

For St. Pierre, 70, life has often dealt him the unexpected, and the emotions of that ambush a half-century ago remain close to the surface.

When he returned home, his future was uncertain. With the help of Sheriff Johnny St. Amant, a friend of his father, he found an initial career with the Sheriff’s Office, eventually earning the rank of detective after receiving a prosthetic leg from a shop in New Orleans.

St. Pierre and his father also started a fabrication and welding business out of his garage on Destrehan Drive that they ran together for the next 32 years. They sold it soon after Hurricane Katrina.

Upon his retirement in 2007, St. Pierre’s wife, Kathleen, was ready to finally go on “that Mediterranean cruise,” he recalled. But while he was helping Eric St. Amant campaign for the parish president post that year, St. Amant realized he didn’t have a chance. He and others looked to St. Pierre as the more natural candidate.

“Everyone wanted me to run but my wife,” St. Pierre said. “And at that point, in 2007, people felt differently about the military. People wanted to embrace those who had served.”

While sitting in his office this week, St. Pierre looked back at his two terms in office with pride.

“I cleaned up parish government,” he said. “Before, the same contractors would be hired by the same councilmen, and they would never get anything accomplished.”

He helped win passage of a 4-mill, 30-year property tax for flood-protection projects in May.

In terms of the parish’s future, he predicted that in 2017 and 2018, “this parish is going to have a lot of money” from the tax revenue from anticipated industrial plant expansions.

“I will also have to keep my eye on whoever takes over to make sure they are spending all this money, from those taxes and the millage, like it’s meant to be spent,” he said.

Two-term St. Charles Parish Councilman Larry Cochran will square off against former Councilman Terry Authement in a Nov. 21 runoff for the president’s post. St. Pierre has endorsed Authement.

St. Pierre said he and his wife will finally take that Mediterranean cruise next year. An avid outdoorsman, he also plans to go dove hunting in Argentina.

“And the following year, I want to see the Great Barrier Reef,” he said. “Those are three main things on my bucket list.”