Wearing fatigues displaying medals he earned while in the Army and standing in front of a large American flag, Jim Mertz speaks to fifth-graders at Lincoln Prairie Elementary School about the history of the flag.
During his presentation, which he has done for 17 years, he and Navy veteran John White go through 13 flags. Mertz talks about different stars, stripes and color layouts while White holds flags up.
Mertz, who was in the Army from 1966 to 1968, served in Vietnam and had the rank of specialist when he left the military. He worked as a draftsman and did guard duty with convoys. He is now a member of the Lake in the Hills American Legion Post 1231.
He eventually went into counseling, which took place over the course of 19 years, to help him deal with post-traumatic stress from his time in Vietnam.
Mertz recently spoke with reporter Joseph Bustos about his flag presentations and his life during and after the Army.
Bustos: I see you have some medals on. One is a Purple Heart.
Mertz: I got hit during the Tet Offensive. It was part of a bullet that caught me. ...There was a wrought-iron fence right by me, and I just figured it hit that, the bullet split and came down.
Bustos: Where did it hit?
Mertz: On my [left] wrist. I didn’t even know I got hit. ... When Tet hit, we had to make our way in what we first thought would be a block-and-a-half to where we thought other Americans were. It ended up being 2.5 miles through town. There were 700 Viet Cong scattered throughout the town. ... In the last firefight, he was shooting down one street, I was shooting down one street, and we both ran out of ammunition, and I got hit.
Bustos: How did you get out?
Mertz: The Tet Offensive started on the 31st of January 1968. I then remember being back in our building on the 13th of February. What happened in between, I have very few memories.
Bustos: When did you start going to counseling for your post-traumatic stress syndrome?
Mertz: I started in 1987; after the welcome-home parade in Chicago [in 1986], I had all kinds of nightmares pop up. I had a friend who was in counseling ... and he’s going, ‘Jim, come on, this is a good group,’ and I said, ‘I don’t need that stuff.’ ... I said that for seven months, and the marriage was going downhill quick. Finally I said, ‘I’ve got to do something; this isn’t right. I’m drinking a lot.’ So in March 1987, I went to a meeting.
Bustos: When you do flag presentations to students and senior citizens groups, what’s the lesson you want people to learn?
Mertz: I want them to know the importance of the American flag.
Bustos: One thing I noticed in your speech is you said everyone should respect not just the American flag but all flags. Why all flags?
Mertz: One of our Legion members was born in Germany, and when he was 7 years old or 8, the war was going on, and the Americans were coming through his town, and there was a German flag hanging up there. He saw the Americans come and take it down, take it off the staff, and they folded it. [They] could have put it on the ground and put a magazine of ammo in it or burned it ... He thought that was so admirable of the Americans to do that. Granted, it might have been a souvenir, but still, to this little kid, he knew they didn’t destroy it. ... The kids should respect every flag. You live in America, but that doesn’t mean you stomp on a Japanese flag. No reason to, you’re above that.
The Jim Mertz lowdown
Who is he? Member of the Lake in the Hills American Legion Post 1231
Family: He and his wife, Diane, have two grown daughters.
Favorite movie: “Saving Private Ryan”
Favorite meal: Burgers, with onions and mustard, and a cold beer