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November 10, 2008 4:13 am

Retired army man is the epitome of patriotism

Written by Tribune Staff

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John Bustos led the honor guard for his departed friend Erwin (Babe) Funke, a fellow U.S. Army veteran. Funke ran a dry cleaning business and always insisted on cleaning honor guard uniforms for free. “He was a fine man,” Bustos said of Funke. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

Veteran John Bustos, 70, of Powell served in the U.S. Army and proudly serves to this day as a local honor guard.

First Sgt. Bustos commands the honor guard at funerals to celebrate the men and women who have served, and continue to serve, this great country.

He also spent 18 months in Vietnam.

Bustos was in the National Guard in Powell. During the disquieting days of the Cold War, the 1961 Berlin Crisis placed the nation on high alert. Russia's President Nikita Khrushchev threatened to reunite East and West Germany under communist rule.

President John F. Kennedy called out National Guard troops, and in very short order, Bustos found himself at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Although the Berlin Crisis blew-over, Bustos decided to pursue a career in the U.S. Army.

Among other places, Bustos was stationed in Germany, and later in Vietnam.

“Hell,” is how Bustos describes his tours in Vietnam.

About 30 years old, Bustos was a staff sergeant in those days.

It was search-and destroy-missions deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia for Bustos and the men of his company.

Looking for the enemy.

“That's what 11th Cav' was noted for,” Bustos said.

War truly is hell when you see your comrades getting killed.

“Losing your buddies is one of the hardest things there is,” Bustos said.

Surviving in the jungle is tough, even when the North Vietnamese aren't shooting at you. Huge snakes, spiders and leeches made life miserable.

The only way to remove the disgusting, blood-sucking parasites was with a red-hot cigar. If the slimy suckers weren't extracted, the soldier could suffer gangrene.

The men lived in mean shelters of 2-by-4s and sandbags, covered with steel roofs.

Latrines were nominally-enclosed shelters with 55-gallon barrels sunk in the earth.

Showers, when available, were suspended water tanks.

Modesty wasn't an issue. In those days, there were no ladies in-country, Bustos said.

Green recruits were “volunteered” for “barbecue” detail. The drums containing the company's waste were soaked with gas and diesel and torched by the newbies.

Despite being in the field for 10-12 days at a time while enduring 100-degree temperatures and 90-percent sticky humidity, it wasn't all bad.

“It (Vietnam) was beautiful country,” Bustos said. “Too bad it got tore up.”

Bustos said the Vietnamese were wonderful people, but they were caught in the middle of a war.

In the field, grunts lived on C-rations — cans containing biscuits, crackers, spam (canned meat), cigarettes and so forth.

The GIs were sent SP (supplement) packs, which included items such as stationery, toothbrushes, toothpaste and sweets — “M&M candy, because it wouldn't melt,” Bustos said.

They were warriors, but within those brave hearts beat benevolent ones.

Extra M&Ms were donated to area churches and orphanages.

Once stateside, Bustos' grisly memories of Vietnam haunted him. But, thanks to counseling, Bustos got squared away. He later returned the favor by counseling a young man who served in Iraq.

To this day, after nearly 27 years in the service, when a lot of guys would be kicking back on rocking chairs, Bustos still serves his fellow soldiers and their families.

“We've done some 100-plus funerals in Powell,” Bustos said.

At funerals, Bustos and his men are out there, looking smart in their uniforms firing salutes.

It is a solemn occasion handing a folded flag to a grieving family member, but it will be an occasion they will cherish, Bustos said.

“The ceremony is for the family,” Bustos said. “They remember it for a long time.”

The honor guard reveres comrades in arms who died on the battlefield or in their own beds.

“It's not for us,” Bustos said, “it's for the people that have already gone.”

Bustos served his country with pride, and reminds us all that freedom was paid for with blood by men and women in uniform.

“It came at a cost to somebody else,” Bustos said.