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'Growler' Joe Kunzler taking a step back
Joe Kunzler loves watching Navy aircraft operations at Outlying Field Coupeville so much he’s coined his own phrase.
“That’s part of the fun of OLF-ing,” Kunzler said. “You never know when it’s going to start until they do it.”
Kunzler was waiting impatiently Jan. 6 for the first scheduled Field Carrier Landing Practice operations, or touch-and-gos, of 2014. He was ready with camera in hand and GoPro video recorder attached to his ball cap, which was embroidered with a jet and the letters “EA-18G.”
Shortly after 3 p.m., the first EA-18G Growler electronic air attack aircraft appeared above the tree line.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time!” said an excited Kunzler.
Landing practices were suspended at OLF in May 2013, just prior to a federal lawsuit filed against the Navy demanding an Environmental Impact Statement be conducted and calling for the closure of OLF. The group, the anti-noise Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, has since said they want all the Growlers removed from the island.
An unabashed supporter of the Navy from Sedro-Woolley, Kunzler became a controversial figure at public forums, in the media and on his own blog — as a result of his often-vehement and, arguably, inflammatory defense of the Navy and its operations at OLF.
Often criticized for getting involved in Whidbey Island politics, the Skagit County resident said he was compelled to speak after intense criticism of the Navy’s jet noise as a member of the Whidbey-based Navy League.
Recently, after roughly 18 months of involvement, Kunzler said he is hanging it up. Last month, he took down his website and announced at a January county commissioner meeting his plans to stay out of Whidbey Island politics.
“I’ve become introspective,” Kunzler said. “I decided no more public comment. It’s time for me to focus on controlling what I can. If I’m going to Island County meetings acting like a jerk... it’s a distraction.”
Still, Kunzler has left his mark on the public debate surrounding the Growler and the presence of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
Joining the Navy League of Oak Harbor in January 2012 was one of the best things that’s ever happened to him, Kunzler said.
Son of a Navy veteran, Kunzler had wanted to be a fighter pilot since he was young. Born with Asbergers — a form of autism — and suffering from a bad back, bad left eyesight and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — limited his ability to serve his country the way he’d hoped.
“I can’t serve in the military because of my multiple disabilities,” Kunzler said. “That’s why I joined the Navy League.”
On his blog, he described how guys like him are written off as a “vegetable, retard, stalker,” even thought he is someone who “just wanted to serve my country like every other American.”
The Navy League, Kunzler said, provided him with a social connection and sense of purpose he craved.
“When you can put on that Team U.S.A. jersey and go out on the field, and stick up for these guys, life makes sense,” Kunzler said. “I feel like I’m part of the team; I feel like I’m caretaking of my nation.”
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, a fellow Navy Leaguer, describes Kunzler as intelligent and outspoken.
“He’s pretty well versed and he means well,” Brown said, but added, “he get’s a little over the top when people rub him the wrong way.”
In addition to his physical limitations, Kunzler said he suffers from PTSD, a result of two armed men wearing ski masks entering the home he shares with his parents during an attempted robbery in 2010.
His father, whom Kunzler asked not be identified, fired on the intruders. Both men escaped, but appeared at area hospitals within a few hours of the break-in, police reported.
The incident left Kunzler shaken, but also deepened his affection for his father.
“I have a lot of respect for my father,” Kunzler said.
Kunzler said he supports the Navy and his father’s service in it because it provides security to the country but especially to the parents he cares so deeply about.
“The Navy is protecting them,” he said.
Kunzler refers to 2012 as “the year of Ken Pickard.”
Pickard was the outspoken COER president and a leader of the anti-OLF and Growler movement on Central Whidbey; he later resigned his position with the group.
COER filed a lawsuit against the Navy over jet noise in July 2013.
Kunzler said his involvement on the issue was sparked by Pickard’s attacks on the Navy.
In an email to county commissioners, Pickard wrote: “It is time for you ‘representatives’ to get some balls and take the death machine on this issue, quit licking their jackboots! Buck up!”
Pickard was known for making similar statements online and in public forums.
“It hurt me to hear that kind of rhetoric,” Kunzler said. “Pickard and his comments put me over the edge. The pro-military side was not being heard until the lawsuit.”
Pickard said he doesn’t recall when Kunzler joined the debate but remembers meeting him early on at a community meeting at the Coupeville Recreation Hall.
“We seemed to get along fine,” Pickard said.
“Am I unfairly attacking the Navy? I don’t think so,” Pickard said in an email response to questions. “The Navy has ‘attacked’ all of Central Puget Sound, condemning the entire region through jet noise and vibration. As I said, I never read what Joe and the other commentators say about me so I have no thoughts about their comments.
“I know what I am doing is worthy, ethically correct, and just, and for the benefit of all of the human and animal residents of our region.”
To do his part, Kunzler created his blog, a platform where he could post photos of the Growlers and share knowledge of the military and its aircraft. He also hurled responses and insults to Pickard and other Navy detractors, among them North Whidbey resident Garrett Newkirk.
“This isn’t just about aviation photography, it’s about sticking up for the troops,” Kunzler wrote. “Enough’s enough. I’ve felt that way since August 2012 when progressive agitators just turned the Island County Commissioners’ meetings into a hostile environment for our troops. Now that’s changed -— it’s hostile for the progressive agitators, NOT pro-troop forces because guys like I just drew a line and held it.”
During an August Island County Commissioner meeting, Kunzler said he felt outnumbered by jet noise critics during a public comment period. He booed and interrupted other speakers and received a rebuke for his behavior from Commissioner Jill Johnson.
While addressing the board, Kunzler told an audience member to “shut up” and called her a “Nazi.” Several in the audience cried foul as Kunzler sat down and then allegedly told a woman in the audience to “go to hell.”
Kunzler later apologized to the board, but refused to apologize to certain people in the audience.
During a December public meeting about the Growlers, Kunzler was escorted out of Coupeville High School by marshal’s deputies after a heated discussion with retired educator Harry Toulgoat.
“All those school children that you grew up with that didn’t want you as their friend, they had you pegged as a problem from the beginning and you remain so now,” Toulgoat told him.
Toulgoat later said he was referencing Kunzler’s blog, on which he discussed how he used to be teased by kids at school because of his disabilities. Toulgoat said he wasn’t aware of Kunzler’s Aspergers.
Both men later expressed regret over the argument, and it was a turning point for Kunzler.
A STEP BACK
Kunzler concedes he may have been over-involved for a nonresident and has learned to empathize somewhat with criticizing jet noise.
His message now: It’s time for Whidbey Island to solve its own problems.
“I love the noise, absolutely love the noise,” Kunzler said. “But I don’t like how people are having adverse impacts.”
Kunzler said he was not aware that until recently that real estate agents were giving out a brief, non-specific noise disclosure. The island’s real estate community updated the form last month.
“I think I did not know what the whole story is,” Kunzler said. “Had I known about the noise disclosure fiasco I would not have said these people were told. I’m more empathetic of residents …”
Kunzler said he wanted his blog to “try to convey information to the public” but said, “it’s hard to do that when everyone is screaming.”
He admits that his own inflammatory language lent credence to “the crazy distraction” that became his online presence.
“People should be able to go to their civic spaces for solutions,” Kunzler said. “I have hurt that space. I’ve really tried to change direction. It’s time for the average Whidbey Island resident to speak up.”
Moving forward, Kunzler said that he plans to attend community college and focus on military history, while continuing to photograph his favorite aircraft — the EA-18G Growler.
“Now I want to show my support my with my camera, not with my mouth,” Kunzler said. “Not get baited into knee-jerk responses.”
After an afternoon of photographing Navy jets and taking in the roaring jet noise well past sun down, Kunzler was already planning his next “OLF-ing” trip.
When asked, “You really enjoy this don’t you?”
He said, “Every time.”