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East County Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018 6 months ago

Veteran John Saputo discusses how to show respect for our military heroes

Saputo says the most important task is remembering veterans for their sacrifices.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

In the Lakewood Ranch area, John Saputo is known for two major reasons — owning Gold Coast Eagle Distributing and his philanthropy.

To the first point, Gold Coast Eagle received the "Ambassadors of Excellence Award" from Anheuser-Busch in 2017, so that speaks for itself. To the second, last year Gold Coast Eagle Distributing donated $267,000 worth of beer (about 14,800 cases) to charity efforts in the Sarasota and Manatee counties area.

The respect is well-earned.

However, with Veterans Day approaching on Sunday, Nov. 11, Saputo has some advice if you want to make his day.

Call him Colonel.

Col. Saputo said any veteran will gladly tell a person his rank if asked, and would be honored to be addressed in that manner.

Col. Saputo, who earned the Bronze Star for heroism during his 32-year military career with the United States Marines, agreed to an interview with the Observer to talk about the importance of Veterans Day and of our respect for and treatment of our veterans.


Do you think our current society showing more respect to our military veterans will encourage our younger generation to join the military down the road?


"I think so. It's like I tell any young men who ask me whether they should join. If you do go into the Marine Corps, the military, I don't care what rank you eventually come out with, you will always be Corporal, be Sergeant, be Captain. You are going to carry that until the day you die. That alone makes the sacrifice you are going to go through worthwhile."


Do you refer to other veterans by their rank?


Col. John Saputo says earning a rank in the military is something that lasts a lifetime.

"When we talk around here (Gold Coast Eagle), it's 'Good morning, Sergeant. Good morning, Petty Officer.' To me, civilians should know when they refer to veterans by their rank, it is so much appreciated. It shows you have respect for the person and what they did to get that rank. I know I don't expect it, and I am always surprised when someone does it. But it is very much appreciated because it is who I am and it is about where I came from. When I see Vietnam veterans, if I know their rank, and this could be an old, grizzly guy hunched over, when I refer to them by rank, their backbone stiffens up and their chin comes up. I know they appreciate it. If you want to honor them, find out what their rank is and refer to them by that rank as long as you know them."


What is the importance of Veterans Day


"I sincerely say this speaking for veterans ... the worst thing isn't going into combat, or dying in combat. The worst thing is going into combat or dying in combat and nobody remembers it. So it is worthwhile that one day of the year, people in America remember what you did."


How is the way veterans are treated now different than when you began your service.


"I was a second lieutenant wearing my dress blues to my brother's wedding, early in the 1970s in Flint, Mich. My brother's wedding was in the lobby of this hotel. This guy just walked up to me, called me a pig and spit on my uniform. I punched him so hard in the face that my shooting badges and medals came flying off. But he continued to scream at me and I drove his head through the drywall. He then tried to have me arrested, so I told the clerk when the police come, here is the room where I would be. Two Genesee County deputy sheriffs came and I invited them in. They started calling me sir ... OK. I sit down and tell them the story. The two get up, shake my hand and say, 'We could not find you anywhere in this hotel' and then winked at me. They had come back from Vietnam two years earlier."


And later?


"I was a major when I came back from Desert Shield-Desert Storm, and everything was different. In 1991, when we made our landing on our amphibious vehicle at Camp Pendleton, 10,000 people were on the beach in front of our battalion headquarters. As we landed, people swarmed our vehicle, a lady jumps up and kisses me, it was all 'welcome home' with flowers for us. Vietnam veterans were saying, 'welcome home, we didn't get this but we wanted you to have this.' There was a party for us on the beach. Thank yous flowed the 45 minutes we were there. You contrast that with what Vietnam veterans got. Americans came of age and they learned not to blame soldiers and Marines for wars. If you want to blame somebody, blame your politicians."


Do you think people know, in general, we have 450,000 soldiers overseas?


No, I don't think they understand we have troops in places like Korea and Okinawa. We have airborne troops on ready alert. We have 100-plus ships floating around. We have submarines underneath the polar ice cap, and floating in oceans ready to defend our sovereignty. But, you know, the guys who are in the military, they want America to be normal, and they want Americans to live their normal life and not stress over the fact we are doing maneuvers, or that we are in combat. America could protect itself and not have any effect on commerce or civilian life. The average military guy knows he is on the tip of the spear so others don't have to be there. America can stay strong. without having to worry about terrorists. If the average person, when I was at Central Command, knew about the intelligence I would see on daily basis, they wouldn't be able to sleep at night. It was comforting to know we could carry that burden so civilians wouldn't have to."


How did you know you wanted to be a military leader?


"I took a course in college on the Holocaust. I was so completely shocked at that massacre. I knew if it wasn't for those guys in Patton's Army, and Bradley's Army, doing what they did, Europe would have suffered for years. And I knew I was leader, the captain of my football team. so I had the personality and stamina to do it. a super stud when I was a kid."


With another election upon us, do you feel the military is well equipped to handle threats.


"When Desert Shield and Desert Storm came, our equipment was top notch. (Ronald) Reagan was president and he said he was going to super equip the military. We were afraid of the Russian T-72s (tanks) but everything we fired at them would take them out. It was because our military had been upgraded.  It bothers me to this day, when I see the equipping of our military, that we get strong, then a new administration comes in and we let it wither. Then somebody gets scared and we bring it up again.  People should know there are consequences for warriors in the field from the people they elect. I fought two wars under rules of engagement set by politicians in Washington that got people killed. That was because of political decisions, not military decisions. That's why I vote. I want politicians who when they commit our military to action, they are going to allow them to win, and to save each other's lives. The rules of engagement are the most important thing you can give your military. Can they go into combat and survive under the rules of combat as citizens and politicians you are giving them?"


How important is it that civilians support not only the soldiers, but their families?


"I had a neighbor next to a home I had just built in Rocky Mount, N.C. who had seen my wife (Denise) at the department store watching cable TV (to check on her husband while he was deployed). This was when cable was just coming in during the 1990s. At the risk of losing his job, he strung cable wire more than a half mile to my house so she wouldn't have to go to the department store. Civilians show their appreciation."


Does America continue to face a huge threat?


"When I first became an officer, I had this starry-eyed look. I thought I would make a huge difference. My units were strong and combat ready. I thought I would make a difference in world. After 32 years, it was a little sad to see the world in worse shape ... when it comes to enemies against this country ... than it was when I started. When I started it was a cold war, where now there are acts of terrorism that brutalize our civilian population. That is sad, and it makes me question whether I did enough with my time."


Do you feel it is important veterans talk about their service?


"I think a lot of this problem is PTSD. Those in World War I, World War II, Korea, they all had it. They all have some tingling of it. A lot of it is they don't talk about it. Veterans should search out other veterans. I have young men come up here and we talk. I have the same thoughts, the same dreams, the same nightmares. When I talk to my wife about it, and I've never told her everything, she sees it really bothers me. She said something to me that was absolutely brilliant. 'If you have killed someone and it doesn't bother you as a human being, then there is something wrong with you, they have taken a part of your soul you don't want to lose. Every veteran who has PTSD should take those words to heart."


Could you talk about the firefight you had in Kuwait?


"As an officer, that was probably what I would call having a catharsis in a firefight. We were facing machine guns and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), and the bad guys got behind us, with bullets going over our heads and our faces in the dirt. It was a moment I felt my leadership counted. and I said, 'I don't want to die like this, let's go kill these guys doing this to us.' I saw 10 to 12 guys get up and get into the vehicle with me. We had a gunner in the hatch and we started out for their position. I was shooting my M-16 and driving, and the men were shooting out the side of the vehicle. Then the gunner got the gun together and we basically obliterated the target. That was in Al Wafrah, Kuwait, and that was kind of a moment. It was 1991. Not to brag, but that's when I knew I was making a difference. We took out the enemy, eight or nine of them, and the only reason we knew how many there were was because when we blew up their building, and their ammunition went up, that was how many boots were left."


How do you look back on your military days?


"In my entire unit of 275 guys. every single one of them ... none of them faltered in the face of the enemy. None of them had a doubt about the mission. When you command, it's probably the most important thing I've ever done. I have 300 people working for me, three distributorships, but the most important thing was leading those 275 men and being a battalion commander when I had 1,100 men. That's more power than any man should have in his hands and it needs to be respected. You have tremendous power over life and death and the right people need to have it. The military does a great job making sure the right people have their hands on the weapons."

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