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By Bill Shunas

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Some words mean different things to different people. For instance, there is the word "patriot." Back in the days of anti-Vietnam War protests, there were people waving flags and dissing us because we were opposed to fighting the commies thousands of miles from Los Angeles. Were they patriots?

Who should be considered to be a patriot? You might think that presidents are. Yet in our lifetime, we've seen our share of wars that presidents did not attend for a variety of reasons, like staying in school, being protected by daddy's influence, or having bad feet. If a president did his best to keep out of the military, would that mean he was something other than a patriot? How many people would designate current service people and us veterans as patriots no matter our political positions? How many times have you been thanked for your service?

How about the rest of us? Back in the days of protest, we were denigrated for our actions by those carrying American flags. Today, one out of six people carrying flags are insurrectionists. Who's the patriot? Don't get me wrong. I made an effort not to go into the military myself. I was drafted, and I appealed. I appealed on the grounds that I had knee surgery. It seemed like the draft board gave it little thought, but it bought me a year while the bureaucracy checked it. There was a guy who hung around the same bar that I frequented. He also got drafted and was supposed to report two weeks before me. Two weeks later, he was back in the bar. It was the same bar stool if I could remember correctly. What happened? Asthma. There was hope.

My dad dropped me off at the reporting station at 06:00 or some ungodly hour. Remembering my lucky friend, when I got to medical, they asked if I had any medical reason not to do this. I said I had bad knees. The doctor said squat. I squatted. Six hours later, I was sitting on a bus looking at the spring scenery in the Ozarks. Destination: Fort Leonard Wood.

I was sent to Vietnam. I wasn't thrilled, but I thought communism was wrong, so okay. So now I was a patriot because I thought correct thoughts. Then something happened. It was November, 1969. In the first week of the month, I was a patriot. One day, I got to thinking. The Vietnamese who worked on the base seemed to have a low opinion of President Thieu and the government. There were little things. Thieu shut down a newspaper. This was the thirty-something paper he had shut down. It didn't seem right. So, I became an anti-patriot the second week in November.

My sister had a hobby of making clothes. She made a shirt for me for Christmas. Lo and behold, the shirt had a peace sign on the front. What was happening? I was now a former patriot with a peace sign. So, my company in Vietnam was going to have a Christmas party in the company area. With much trepidation, I decided to wear the peace shirt—sort of like a coming-out party.

My knees were shaky as I walked to the party. The CO, the XO, and the supply sergeant sat at one table. Nobody said anything about my shirt. As the drinking escalated through the night, a strange thing happened. More and more of the EMs started yelling at and disparaging the occupants of that table. They were not exactly popular in the first place because they were bastards, and no one would give them any slack. Their body language was revealing. It was as if they were folding inside their bodies. Then there was Hans. He rotated back to the States months before me. I never talked to him, but others speaking in low and conspiratorial voices told me Hans said he would protest when he returned home. I was still pro-war, but I was in awe of him for some reason.

After Vietnam, I met Jerry, a vet. He wasn't the kind of guy who'd like VVAW because of the flag and those of us who clashed with flag wavers. Jerry's reasoning was simple. During his personal hell in Vietnam, the flag was the only thing that he could hold on to. I have respect for Jerry. I don't know what criteria determine who is a patriot or not. I don't know if it's important. I do know that one in six insurrectionists, using the flag as cover the same way they did fifty years ago, shouldn't be mistaken for patriots. As for myself, I am still deciding where I am on this issue.


If you live in or near Chicago and like jazz, you likely have your radio tuned to WDCB, where the jazz disk jockeys have most of the week covered. One of those disc jockeys is Bruce Oscar, who will do a radio show on Memorial Day and Veterans Day to honor veterans. He will play patriotic music and reminisce about his veteran dad. Several times I listened, but it didn't go well. He would start to talk. Then there would be crying and the playing of Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder: God Bless America and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Finally, he kept it together, and I heard the full narrative. He talked about his father. Dad had enlisted in the Navy in 1940. He was on station in the Pacific when Pearl Harbor happened. His ship arrived in a day or two. Crying, Bruce related how his dad and his shipmates spent days climbing down into half-sunken ships to remove bodies and body parts. To honor his father, Bruce enlisted in the Navy when Vietnam started.

Bruce mentioned that he knew many who signed up for the various services because of Vietnam. Most of them came back. Of those who came back, there were many with physical or mental problems. And I shed tears also just hearing this over the radio.


On a personal note, thank you to the VVAW Board of Directors for the Winter Soldier Service Award. It has been my pleasure to write the column.

Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author, and long-time VVAW member.

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