American Legion member Tom Bulleit pours a small shot glass of bourbon, brings it to his nose, inhales the distinctive honey aroma, analyzes the amber color, and sips.
He performs the same ritual several hundred times a year promoting the bourbon he created in 1987. When meeting with whiskey writers or restaurant owners, he talks about how his unique Kentucky bourbon has the most rye content of all bourbons, how it's made from a 175-year-old family recipe, and why it's earned numerous medals in blind-tasting competitions. As he speaks about his beloved Bulleit Bourbon, he's composed, confident, and eager to sell his audience on its spicy bite and smooth finish.
But when the topic of conversation drifts away from whiskey, out comes a different story, the story of a Navy corpsman who saved lives in Vietnam. When that happens, his posture changes. He remains confident and proud, but there's no doubt that the designation of veteran means more to him than being the founder of an award-winning whiskey label.
"The thing I am most proud of in my life - other than being a husband and a father - is my service as a corpsman with the Marine Corps in Vietnam," he says. "Nothing comes close to that."
Respect and Honor. One day in 1982, at the steps of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a woman held a triangle-folded flag, while her husband played "Taps" on a bugle. They were saying goodbye to their son, who had been killed in action. Standing nearby was 8-year-old Hollis Bulleit, with her family. As she heard the bugler's notes, tears streamed down her young face.
"I was thinking a lot about my dad going to Vietnam," she recalls.
The Wall holds a special place for the Bulleit family. He campaigned to have it built and has spoken there twice.
"Maya Ying Lin designed an extraordinary emotional experience," he says of the Legion-supported memorial. "It was a great gift to me and Vietnam veterans that they would honor our service in such a dramatic way."
Bulleit believes every veteran of the war should visit it.
"There's no question the Vietnam Memorial is about healing for veterans. It's also about healing for those who protested the war, to see the sacrifices we made," he says. "Not since the American Civil War were we at such odds ... The memorial is a reminder that soldiers are not responsible for the war, but they bear the burden of the war."
Like most Vietnam veterans, Bulleit hasn't forgotten the cold shoulder that most of his fellow troops received upon their return.
"I hope (today's) soldiers are not experiencing that and are treated with the respect and honor they deserve," Bulleit says. "The Vietnam Memorial is a reminder of how we didn't do it right and how we should do it right."
Boy to Man. Bulleit describes his undergraduate years at the University of Kentucky as a time when he "played hard and learned little."
After graduation, several of his friends were drafted. Bulleit joined the Navy and became a corpsman, and in 1968, he was sent to the area north of Da Nang with the 1st Marine Division.
"As a corpsman, you see the up-close horror of war. I remember being on top of a mountain, near a French bunker, and thinking, ‘How can men come to this? How can we so strongly believe in our cause that we come to this?'"
He says he enjoyed the camaraderie, and greatly appreciated the benefits of military service, including the GI Bill.
In Vietnam, Bulleit took the LSAT, a prerequisite for law-school applications. Initially, his section chief rejected the request. In time, after a few beers, the request was granted.
A single Jeep with an M60 gunner escorted Bulleit to a testing center at Da Nang. There, he sat down, placed his pistol on the table and took the exam. "I always tell people, ‘If you want to pass the LSAT, bring a pistol,'" Bulleit jokes.
In war, Bulleit found a maturity he'd lacked. "Vietnam made me a man," he says. "I have no doubt that a combination of my military service and graduating law school bailed me out of that horrendous undergraduate performance with my mother and father."
A Military Legacy. In the whiskey business, Bulleit Bourbon's founder has a sterling reputation.
"Tom Bulleit is absolutely one of the kindest persons I've ever met," says Kevin Smith, vice president of operations and master distiller for Maker's Mark. "I hope that when people speak of me that it emulates what people say about Tom Bulleit."
A member of the Kentucky Distillers Hall of Fame, Bulleit's hard work has paid off: his bourbon is now available in all 50 states and many foreign markets.
"His structured way of business comes from the military," Hollis says. "But bourbon is the third or fourth priority for him. Family is first. He loves his children so much that I think sometimes he's embarrassed about it."
His family's military legacy also is important to him. When he prepared to ship out to Vietnam, his mother asked aloud, "Why is it the same families always fight the wars?"
Certainly, it's in the Bulleit blood to serve the United States in uniform. Bulleit's father served in Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army in World War II. He lost an eye and suffered a penetrating shrapnel injury to his brain in a tank battle during the Battle of the Bulge. Both of Bulleit's uncles served in World War II, and his grandfather was an Army major, an engineer, in World War I.
Bulleit's son, Tucker, recently discovered that a Bulleit fought one of his wife's ancestors during the Civil War at Corydon, Ind., the only incursion in the north other than Gettysburg.
"Luckily, neither one were particularly good shots, or we wouldn't be here," he says.
Though few Americans can trace their military lineage that far back, that connection to his father mattered most for Bulleit. He remembers, as a boy, seeing light coming from beneath the bathroom door late at night. His dad was inside, smoking cigarettes to deal with the massive headaches caused by the shrapnel.
"But my father never missed a day of work," Bulleit says. "He was a man of sincere faith, a great southern gentleman."
The elder Bulleit didn't tell his son the story of how he was injured until he was 82, two years before he passed away. Bulleit never shared his own war stories, because "the sacrifices he made were substantial, and I'm sitting here OK."
Nevertheless, father and son shared an unspoken bond - the same bond, only magnified, that all veterans have. "My father always respected my military service," Bulleit says.
His daughter, Hollis, feels the same.
"I am so proud my father served our country," she says.
Fred Minnick is an Iraq veteran and author of "Camera Boy: An Army Journalist's War in Iraq" (Hellgate Press).