GENOA – When Lonnie Stojan of Sycamore wears his “Vietnam Veteran” hat, he often is thanked for his service.
Stojan, 71, served in the Army as a heavy equipment operator with the 70th Combat Engineers from 1966 to '69 and was in Vietnam in 1967 and '68.
He describes the hat as a conversation starter, a way for strangers to approach him to say "thank you" and for fellow veterans to talk about their time in the service.
But it wasn’t always like that for Vietnam veterans such as Stojan. He remembers being told to change into civilian clothes on his way home from Fort Lewis in Washington because he might run into problems.
“But I didn’t have any civvies, just my khakis,” Stojan said. “I didn’t run into any problems coming home. There was no welcome home; it was all kind of kept quiet. We hung our hat on the wall and tried to forget about it and move on. ... But it’s not like that today. There are welcome home parades; people say 'thank you.' Veterans are respected and honored; people celebrate Veterans Day.”
In conjunction with Veterans Day on Monday, American Legion Post 337 is celebrating its 100th anniversary Saturday at the Genoa Veterans Home, 311 S. Washington St. in Genoa. The event is open to the public, and guests are invited to wear an early 1900s military uniform or clothing from that era.
There also will be a 24-hour vigil at the DeKalb County courthouse starting Friday to honor the 19 DeKalb County soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam.
Stojan met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss his time in the service, the importance of Veterans Day and the details of Post 337’s 100th anniversary celebration.
Milton: Tell me about yourself.
Stojan: I’m originally from Genoa. I graduated Genoa High School in 1966. After high school, I spent the summer home and enlisted in the Army in October. A lot of my buddies were getting drafted. I thought I’d probably have to serve anyways, so I went to sign up.
Milton: What was it like to return home after the Vietnam War?
Stojan: The Vietnam veterans coming home were not getting the welcome home we give today. There was no parade. We didn’t really talk about our time in the service, even amongst ourselves. Even I put it on the back shelf.
Milton: When and how did that change?
Stojan: That all changed in 1985 when the DeKalb County organization VietNow started and I joined. My wife, Bonnie, told me I had to go. That first meeting changed things around and was one of the best things I ever did. The group went defunct in 2018, but it was a national organization.
Milton: Did you join other veteran organizations once returning home?
Stojan: I have been a member of American Legion Post 337 since the early ‘70s. We have a couple hundred members in the community, including longtime neighbors, friends and relatives. My brother, Ronnie, also belongs to the American Legion; he served in the Navy. My dad was in the Navy, too.
Milton: Tell me about the American Legion’s 100th anniversary celebration.
Stojan: The event is celebrating the American Legion’s 100 years of service to the community. It’s open to the public; everyone can come. It’s going to be a fun social event. My daughter’s going to be making the cake. Come on down for the camaraderie and see folks you haven’t seen in a long time.
Milton: What do you like about being a part of veteran organizations?
Stojan: It’s not about sitting around and telling war stories. We discovered we could lean on each other when things got to be a bit much. When I returned home from Vietnam, my younger sister asked me once about my experiences there. I told her, “I can’t explain it to you, you’ll never get it even if I try to tell you.” The other veterans all knew and understood.
Milton: What did you learn in the Army that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?
Stojan: The Army taught me a lot, more than how to operate heavy equipment and how to shine boots. It taught me structure, how to take orders, how to get along with people. In the barracks, you were one person in the mix of people from all over the place. You make friends and learn how to rely on yourself and on your buddies.
Milton: Why is Veterans Day special to you as a veteran?
Stojan: Veterans Day is our day, a day to honor and say "thank you" to all who served [in the military]. When I wear my “Vietnam Veteran” hat, I run into people saying "thank you" for your service a lot. Twice, at the grocery store, I was checking out with groceries in my basket. The person in front of me handed the cashier their card to pay for my things. That completely surprised me. I never expected it, and it happened twice. I think it’s kind of cool. It really, really meant a lot.