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VFW commander in Grand Forks for state convention

One of John Hamilton's first jobs after returning from Vietnam was as a "heel." That's professional wrestling slang for being the villain in the staged matches.

VFW Commander in Chief John Hamilton
VFW Commander in Chief, John Hamilton , right, shares a laugh with Dale Ronning, left, ND state adjutant quartermaster, during a golf outing for VFW members at Valley Golf in East Grand Forks Thursday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

One of John Hamilton's first jobs after returning from Vietnam was as a "heel." That's professional wrestling slang for being the villain in the staged matches.

"I played both good guy and bad guy at times, but I was much better at being a heel," Hamilton said.

"I didn't lose often. I usually got disqualified instead."

Known then by stage names such as Johnny Montana and Dr. Death, Hamilton plays a more honorable role now, as national commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He's in Grand Forks for this weekend's North Dakota VFW annual convention, one of 35 states he has plans to visit during his year in office. It's the first time a national commander has attended a North Dakota convention since 2005.

As indicated by his willingness to share pro wrestling stories and attend gatherings across the country, the 62-year-old enjoys the social portion of his job and has a breezy personality to match.


"As a wrestler, I worked with my muscle and my mouth," he said from the lobby of the Hilton Garden inn, convention headquarters. "Now I work just with my mouth."

Despite his easy-going nature and folksy conversation, he quickly turns serious when asked about his job as head of the 1.4 million members of the VFW.

"The most important job I've had in my life is as a sergeant in the Marine Corps (in Vietnam)," he said. "The second most important is being the commander of the best organization in the world."

Talking and listening

Most of his job is political, lobbying the federal government for benefits and quality of life issues for VFW members, who need to have fought overseas to qualify for membership. Hamilton's topic for his Saturday evening keynote speech is "survivors' responsibility," the duty of helping those who don't return home or return in worse shape.

"Less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military, so the other 99 percent can at least keep promises and commitments to them," Hamilton said.

Hamilton was 18 when he went to Vietnam, where he was wounded three times in less than a year. Discharged in 1970, he became a VFW member in 1974, moving up the administrative ladder locally, regionally and nationally for almost 40 years. His honors include awards from the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

"The VFW gave a guy a place to sit down and talk about the war with other veterans," Hamilton said. "That's healthy.


"You can't talk about combat with your wife or the grocer or anyone else who hasn't experienced it. You needed a place to go and have people listen to you who understand it."

Call Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1125; or send email to rbakken@gfherald.com .

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