Jim Koutz has lived much of his life on the banks of the Ohio River.
Growing up in Boonville, Ind., he spent weekends beside the water, watching flatboat races and tugboats pushing coal barges. He and his buddies usually had a campfire going, grilling hot dogs and hamburgers while bands played music.
At 16, Koutz got his own lot, eventually owning five acres on the river. But when the Army sent him to Vietnam in 1970, he reluctantly sold the property, fearing he might not return.
"It's probably worth a couple hundred thousand now," he guesses.
After the war, Koutz went back to his beloved Ohio, and nothing has separated the self-described "river rat" from it since. He's upgraded his accommodations – trading his tent for a Vacationer RV – but he hasn't changed. Every chance he gets, he's there watching boats go by and cooking for family and friends.
Except this year. In August, Koutz was elected national commander of The American Legion at the 94th National Convention, capping a 41-year Legion career that began the week he hung up his uniform. His résumé is thick with the titles he's held: post commander, district commander, department commander, district and department membership chairman, national vice commander, chairman of the National Economic and Legislative commissions. For every one of these high-profile positions, Koutz has served in two or three less visible jobs, from Hoosier Boys State chairman to post finance officer.
"I've enjoyed every minute of it," he says. "When I was appointed national vice commander, I thought that was something. This is more than I ever expected."
During his travels, Koutz will be missed at the river and at Boonville Post 200, where he's a life member and respected as a mentor and authority on all things Legion. But his supporters say they've waited a long time to see him don the red cap.
"This is not only an honor for our post, but for Boonville and Indiana," says Ron Byrley, a Marine Corps veteran and Post 200's commander. "We are excited, to say the least."
"We Did Our Job." Tucked away in the southwestern corner of the Hoosier State, Boonville was once known for coal mining and Derr's soda. It's the home of the longest continually running Christmas parade in the country, and where a young Abraham Lincoln – living on a farm with his father 17 miles from town – came to hear court trials and borrow books from attorney John Brackenridge.
"I've never thought about living anywhere else," says Koutz, who knows and is known by most of Boonville's 6,200 residents. As a teen, he delivered their newspapers, caddied for them on the golf course and gassed up their cars. Later, Koutz worked beside them at aluminum giant Alcoa, and as an equipment operator at Amax Coal from 1973 to 1995. He also put in 16 years as Warrick County's veterans service officer.
Koutz's father, George, was a World War II Army veteran. "He never did talk much about where he went or what he did," Koutz says. His father moved to Illinois after he and Koutz's mother,
Marjorie, divorced. He died when Koutz was young, and only later did Koutz discover that he'd followed in George's footsteps as county veterans service officer and commander of Boonville Post 200. Marjorie raised the couple's four children and was serving as director of the local Selective Service board when Koutz's number came up.
"She drafted me," he says. "She cried the day I got on that bus. She acted like it was her fault, but we had to do what we had to do. We didn't dodge the draft. We did our job like we were supposed to for our country."
When Koutz realized he'd be going to Vietnam, he looked up Tom Jones, a fellow in neighboring Lynnville who'd been a prisoner of war. He wanted to know what to expect. "I talked to him about midnight one night," he recalls. "He told me to watch it, because the South (Vietnamese) and the North – you couldn't really tell them apart. The enemy would dress like the South, and that's when they'd get you."
Koutz completed basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., and advanced infantry training at Fort Ord, Calif. In Vietnam, he served with C Company, 169th Engineer Battalion, tearing down jungle and building roads so U.S. troops could get supplies. He was there over a year, returning in March 1971.
Koutz vowed never to forget those who died in the Vietnam War or who, to this day, remain unaccounted for. He drives a black Chevy Silverado with a POW/MIA license plate on the front and a magnetic POW/MIA ribbon on the back. On his wrist, he wears a stainless steel bracelet for Air Force Capt. Robert Willett, whose plane was shot down over Laos on April 17, 1969. And every time he's in Washington, Koutz stops at the Wall to remember his friend Cpl. Lonnie Weisheit of Lynnville, who was killed by enemy fire at Hua Nghia, South Vietnam, on June 21, 1970.
"Every Day is Veterans Day." Like a lot of returning soldiers, Koutz shook off boos and epithets when he returned to the United States – a stark contrast to the hearty handshakes he got at the Boonville Legion when he stopped by to sign up.
"That was probably on a Wednesday, and by Saturday the old-timers had me in the kitchen, helping cook fish and chicken," he says. "I was one of the Vietnam guys they welcomed. That's the reason I've got so many years on my card."
Koutz became a fixture at the post, exasperating his wife, Vickie. "I fought it for a long time, because he was always there," she says. "I finally decided I couldn't beat him, so I'd join him."
In fact, Vickie has served as a unit, district and department president in the American Legion Auxiliary, and chaired the Poppy, Legislative and Girls State programs. She's currently the national director of Girls Nation.
"I didn't dream I'd get to do the things I've done," Vickie says. "I've met people from all over the United States. And now that I've been a national chairman for a while, I introduce Jim to my friends instead of him introducing me to his."
Still, she's ready for Koutz to take on the Legion's highest office. "He believes in the four pillars, and he's devoted to the programs," she says.
Vickie's brother, Rick Fortune, says that when it comes to serving veterans, few people are Koutz's equal.
When a mutual friend – a Navy veteran – developed a growth around his larynx and couldn't get help, Fortune called Koutz, who had just stepped into the role of county veterans service officer.
"He said, ‘You tell Bud to come see me right now,'" Fortune says. "Long story short, Jimmy got it arranged for him to go to a VA clinic somewhere, and they got the growth out. That man's alive today because of him. I love my brother-in-law dearly. He has a big heart. He's always out to help people."
Brad Downing, one of Koutz's childhood friends and maintenance chief at the Warrick County Courthouse, calls Koutz a "super guy." Busy as he was helping veterans with their claims, he always found time to replace the U.S. flag atop the courthouse, shovel snow and hang
Christmas lights, Downing says.
Over the years, Downing saw hundreds of people enter Koutz's office with
questions and leave with answers.
"He worried a lot about getting disabled veterans the help they need," he says. "He went way beyond his duties to take care of them."
That fire was lit during Koutz's time in the Army, when he came across some articles about what The American Legion's service officers were doing for wounded Vietnam War veterans.
"I read about it and figured I could be of help," he says. "Our service officers still do a wonderful job for veterans. You don't even have to belong to the Legion. They'll take care of you."
As national commander, that's the kind of commitment Koutz says he'd like to inspire in other Legionnaires. "My slogan is ‘Every day is Veterans Day," he says. "I believe that. Every day we've got to work for veterans."
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.
Follow National Commander Jim Koutz online: www.legion.org/commander