Deputies cross paths years after naval service

Two Chester County deputy sheriffs recently upended the “six degrees of separation” concept.

In 1990, playwright John Guare popularized the theory in a play of the same name. The premise: Any two people could be connected through a chain of up to six “friend of a friend” introductions. For Deputy Sheriff Keith Neiswender and Deputy Sheriff Howard “Larry” Sipple, the number happened to be much smaller; however, it took a vehicle decal to determine that.

Both men met each other earlier this year when they joined the Chester County Sheriff’s Office at the same time, the culmination of a somewhat circuitous journey to West Chester. Neiswender had been working for the Berks County Sheriff’s Office, and Sipple had been employed by the Caln Township Police Department. But it was their earlier military service that prompted a startling discovery: In 1991 and 1992, they both served on the USS America.

A custom-made Navy decal prompted a revelation that two Chester County deputy sheriffs had crossed paths previously.

The revelation took a couple of weeks to surface. After being hired as deputies, the pair got to know each other during 13 weeks of field training. During that time, they maintained the same schedules and often ran into each other in the parking garage. One day, Sipple did a double-take when he saw “VF-102” on the side of Neiswender’s Jeep.

Sipple said he knew immediately that Neiswender had served on the USS America because the VF-102 squadron was a sister squadron to his own, the VF-33. When he shared that information with Neiswender, he learned that they had both been deployed to the aircraft carrier during its 1991-1992 cruise.

“It was just one of those small-world moments,” Sipple recalled.

Neiswender, who had the decal custom-made, said he never imagined the connection it would forge. “I was stunned,” he said.

The conversation with Sipple marked the first one prompted by the logo, said Neiswender, but he’s had countless chats with others over the years about his military service.

“I’ve never met anyone before who served on the boat at the same time I did,” he said.

Neither deputy can remember interacting directly on the warship; however, that’s not surprising given the USS America’s average population of 5,000. Envision a mega Carnival or Norwegian liner and subtract the amenities to get an idea of the USS America’s size and scope, Sipple said.

During the deputies’ deployment, the USS America was focused on the Persian Gulf during the onset of Desert Storm. Sipple was responsible for working to test equipment for the F14 Tomcat and several other aircraft that operated on the ship. Neiswender was assigned to ensuring that the aircraft was loaded with the appropriate firepower.

“Several guys in my shop worked in his squadron,” said Sipple.

The epiphany about the deputies’ Navy connection came at a time when colleagues in the Sheriff’s Office were experiencing some trouble telling them apart.

“We were hired at the same time and have the same general appearance: height, weight and short grey hair,” Sipple said. Compounding the difficulty: A change in personnel delayed the delivery of their nametags, which would have short-circuited the confusion.

When the IDs finally arrived, the pair flirted briefly with switching them to continue confounding their co-workers, but their less-prankish sides prevailed.

“We both agreed we couldn’t do it,” said Neiswender.

The temptation remains, however. “Some people still call us by the wrong name as a joke,” said Neiswender. “So, in those cases, we haven’t ruled out messing with them at some point” by trading tags.

“Both of these deputies are extraordinary people and very talented. Each of them individually is a great addition to the sheriff’s office, and the serendipity of the circumstances is heartwarming,” said Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Bunny Welsh.  “It certainly has created an amazing synergy between them; they are a great team.”

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