ACG interviews the VFW’s commander in chief.
As a third-generation Marine and decorated Vietnam War veteran, John E. Hamilton knows about service to America. Yet he neither planned to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) nor did he ever imagine he would serve as its commander in chief. But four decades after joining, Hamilton leads the outstanding organization that is dedicated to serving America’s veterans, the military, and VFW members’ local communities. For more information about the VFW, visit vfw.org.
How did you become the VFW’s commander in chief?
HAMILTON: I didn’t set out to become commander after joining the VFW in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1974, which I was pressured to do. My dad was a VFW guy, and at first I thought joining was the end of it; but I got involved in the hospital taking care of my fellow Marines. It was not until much later in life that I thought I could make a difference and be a positive influence to the organization. So at the urging of many people, I decided to run and was elected.
Your patriotic and colorful background includes serving in Vietnam and being a professional wrestler, correct?
HAMILTON: My father was a Marine, as was my grandfather, and I decided that I wanted to be a Marine. After I was wounded in Vietnam for the third time, that took care of my combat career. I got back into the best shape I possibly could, and I wound up in the wrestling business for about 15 years, and it was good to me. I had the opportunity to retire young, invest some money and be relatively successful. Then I visited VA hospitals and saw guys less fortunate, and I decided to get active and give something back. What wrestling did is give me an opportunity to spend my time volunteering for the VFW, which I was in for 37 years before I became a paid employee.
How did you come up with your professional wrestling names, Johnny Montana and Dr. Death?
HAMILTON: Back in my Vietnam days, I had an old sweatshirt from boot camp that had a tombstone with grunt Marine Corps humor, so when I came back to the States and got in the wrestling business, I wanted to come up with something that was different and unique. I sat down with promoters one day, and I had done the Johnny Montana thing because there were two other Montanas, Lenny and Rocky, whom I worked with. But we decided to come up with something new and different, and the Dr. Death thing came about. We were talking one day about the Marine Corps and Vietnam and some of the stupid stuff you do as a youngster, and also about doing a tag team thing. We were going to call it Death and Destruction, and they said, “Hey, why don’t you use Dr. Death?” Dr. Death in my day was a mask guy, and I wrestled both with and without a mask, and Dr. Death became a mask guy with a cape. I had the same tombstone from my Marine sweatshirt drawn on the back of my cape.
What does it mean to you to be the VFW’s commander?
HAMILTON: The highest rank in this organization is comrade, because that’s the price you pay to be eligible. The rest are jobs. Commander in chief is a title and a job. To be a comrade in the VFW is the ultimate because that means I’ve served my country honorably. But to be commander in chief certainly is a wonderful experience, giving me an opportunity to travel the country and spread our message of what we’re trying to accomplish and why people should become members and support us.
What are your goals as the VFW’s commander?
HAMILTON: My goals, which are dictated and mandated by our National Convention each year, are simple. They are to spread the word and ensure that we have a veteran service program second to none, have a legislative office in Washington, D.C., that’s effective in continuing to lobby hard for active-duty military, for quality of life issues, and for veterans’ issues to make certain that we get Congressional support that funds the programs that have been promised to American heroes.
What is the importance of the VFW in American society?
HAMILTON: First and foremost, we’re here to support the active military and support veterans. But we also have other programs, including Voice of Democracy and Patriot’s Pen youth programs featuring scholarships and financial incentives. Additionally, we have a 650- acre national home for children in Eaton Rapids, Mich., where we take care of the children of members and former members who might have fallen on hard times and the parents can’t take care of them. We also provide service officers for veterans and military members who need help with filing claims on disabilities that they’ve earned.
What is your vision for the VFW’s future?
HAMILTON: We do long-range planning once or twice a year where we discuss what we’re doing, and obviously we’re concerned about long-range as well as how we’re going to help the young GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a different military today, comprised of many more females than in the past. We in the VFW welcome females, we’re proud of their service, and we are trying to put in place long-range planning goals that recognize and deal with issues and to urge our government to deal with those issues. Lastly, we support the recent ruling that women be afforded the opportunity to serve in combat.
What leaders in history do you most admire?
HAMILTON: There are so many, but being a Marine, you always hear about the greatest Marine that ever strapped on a pair of boots, and that’s [Lieutenant General Lewis B.] “Chesty” Puller, who is still discussed throughout the Marine Corps. He served in World War II and Korea, and for him, it was bigger than self; it was about the Corps, the country and doing the right thing for America.
What are the traits of truly outstanding leaders?
HAMILTON: I believe some traits are born in great leaders, either you have it or you don’t, and some traits can be learned. But ultimately, great leaders step up with uncommon valor and compassion.
Are you interested in military history?
HAMILTON: Yes, of course, and I enjoy reading and watching all the old movies back from the days of the Wild West all the way up through the battles in Fallujah and Afghanistan. There’s a commonality that runs through all of it, whether you rode a horse up San Juan Hill or you served in Vietnam, that young men and women are selfless and sacrifice on a daily basis. And if you talk to these people, they’ll just tell you, “I just did my job.”
John Ingoldsby conducted this interview. He is a leading writer on the intersection of sports and the military and is president of IIR Sports & Entertainment, Inc. (IIRsports.com), a public relations and media firm in Boston.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.