Living a life in service

© 2017-Rochelle News-Leader

After 30 years as an officer with the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, Jim Popryfke said his experience catching criminals resulted from paying attention and sometimes a little luck.

The Rochelle resident earned 20 commendations in his career with the department, which encompasses the city of Chicago and nearby suburbs, beginning with patrol then the tactical unit before his promotion to detective. As detective, Popryfke worked in the robbery unit, auto theft unit, and the intelligence unit.

“I always liked working in auto theft,” Popryfke recalled, working in Auto Theft North. “I was in auto theft for about nine years. I really enjoyed it. In the years my partner and I worked auto theft we caught a lot of bad guys.”

The challenge is on

Working in law enforcement for 30 years might have come with some challenges, but Popryfke learned the importance of being challenged early on in the Marine Corps. The Vietnam veteran enlisted in 1966 while living in Chicago. By August of that year Popryfke was headed to the Marine Corps training center in San Diego for the next 12 weeks.

“I learned a lot from boot camp on…instead of waiting for people to challenge me, I had to challenge myself. That made me a better person,” Popryfke said. “Life is full of them, you better start challenging yourself or you won’t learn anything…it was certainly a challenge getting through boot camp and Vietnam.”

Popryfke remembers the first two weeks of boot camp feeling scared. Pushed to the limit 24/7, he also found out what teamwork was all about. Getting through boot camp was a “light bulb” moment for him, something he felt proud of doing. After boot camp, Popryfke was sent to Camp Pendleton for advanced infantry training where military personnel learned about weapons such as machine guns and mortars.

Popryfke was sent to Vietnam in November of 1966. Reflecting on those first days going on patrol with his squad, Popryfke learned how to survive while hunting for the “bad guys.”

“Each day I felt was a learning experience. You have your squad leader and you learned from him because he had been there awhile. Soon it becomes your knowledge and then one day you’re the leader,” Popryfke said.

After becoming squad leader, Popryfke had a close call that could have ended very differently. As leader, Popryfke was positioned in the center of the pack of soldiers. While heading towards a village, he slid into a pit that was set up by the enemy with one thing in mind. Had he tripped and fallen head first, the object would have pierced his chest. Instead it tore his pants. Vietnam was the first time Popryfke had ever seen white sand, considering Chicago beaches have a tan color to them. The sand would reach inland for two or three miles.

Another noticeable element was the heat, especially considering the amount of gear the soldiers had to wear. It wasn’t uncommon to see 100 degree and above temperatures. Popryfke also remarked how the villagers could grow vegetables in the sand. They would also fish, tend their rice patty farms and their water buffalo. Popyrfke said not all villagers in Vietnam wanted conflict.

“The villagers wanted to be left alone to grow their crops and build their huts,” Popryfke said. “It amazed me the first time to see how they lived. I thought, my goodness this was 3,000 years ago…bamboo huts, fields where they grew stuff, where they fished. My first thought was how do people live like this? No electricity, dirt pounded to make a floor.”

Popryfke said most times U.S. soldiers would have a good idea if the villagers were friendly or not. One way to check would be to see if the young men had visible scars from carrying backpacks or heavy artillery — a sign that most often meant would be met with a conflict.

“Sometimes you would walk in a village and never see any male over the age of 10,” Popryfke recalled. “Vietnam had liberal draft laws…they would grab anyone that could carry a rifle. Forced them to do it.”

Memories

Military personnel serving their country in time of war are faced with dangerous situations every day. Popryfke said he had one job and one job only as a Marine infantryman — Carry a rifle and walk.

“In the movies they show people walking along and getting ambushed. But our assignment was to ambush them, which we did a lot, and we were successful at it,” Popryfke reflected.

Popryfke remembers the day he lost a good friend, Dennis, as one of the worst days of his life.

“We had no base camp, and we were out in the bush a lot. Often times people ask me if I saw a lot of battle — I saw a lot. We lost some guys. That’s always a bad day,” Popryfke said.

He also shared some memorable experiences, including the time his unit came across a King Cobra snake. Quick reflexes and a machete saved everyone from danger. Popryfke said it took a dozen men to carry the snake, and the head alone was the size of their helmet.

Towards the end of his tour in Vietnam Popryfke had another close call, nearly walking through a tripwire before a member of his squad pulled him back out of harms way. The wire was attached to a coffee can filled with nails and glass. Throughout it all, Popryfke earned two purple hearts and was awarded a bronze star for actions taken in combat. After he was wounded and taken to a sanctuary to be “patched up,” Popryfke then contracted Amoebic Dysentery, losing about 30 pounds. He stayed on a hospital ship for about 10 days.

In December of 1967, Popryfke received his orders to be returned stateside to serve out the remainder of his three-year enlistment as a guard in Yorktown, Virginia. On to his next challenge, Popryfke enrolled in college on the G.I. Bill that paid for his tuition.

Armed with a degree in criminal justice, he began his career as a Cook County Sheriff’s police officer. Times have changed Although many of Vietnam War veterans were looked down upon their return decades ago, times have changed and America stands behind all veterans. Popryfke experienced this on a recent flight to California. He was on his way to visit his war buddy’s grave, scheduled to meet with Dennis’ family there. On the flight the attendant asked about his service and shortly before landing made an announcement.

“The stewardess gets on the PA, announces a special veteran is aboard the plane. She said my name and explained why I was going to California — to visit my friend’s gravesite,” Popryfke said tearfully. “Everybody on that plane clapped. It was a great feeling and it wasn’t just for 10 seconds. It went on for more than a minute.”

Popryfke said he hasn’t visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington yet, although he did see the traveling wall when it came through Illinois about 35 years ago. It was then Popryfke learned more of his fellow military friends and crewmembers perished after seeing their names.

All of his experiences as a sheriff’s officer, including helping to solve the second largest bank robbery in Illinois history along with numerous crimes, all began after he rose to the challenges he faced early on.

“For me it was one of the best things I ever did. When I was there, none of us liked losing our fellow Marines, losing or killed. But we weren’t afraid. It taught me a lot, not only about being a Marine, but making me different than what I was back then, and I learned lessons. We all do.”

After retiring from the police force, Popryfke transitioned to owning a carpentry business, and since then has handed the reigns over completely to his son. Popryfke lives in Rochelle with his wife and enjoys tending to his three-acre property.