If you've watched Wheel of Fortune in the past thirty years, you're more than aware of its iconic host, Pat Sajak. But, what many don't know is that Sajak was a member of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Born in Chicago in 1946, Sajak found his start in broadcast through Columbia College Chicago. While attending, an instructor helped him get a job for a local radio station, WEDC. From that point Sajak stuck to the world of entertainment and hasn't looked back.
In 1968 Sajak joined the U.S. Army. Although military action in the Vietnam War was in full swing, Sajak was fortunate enough to avoid frontline action and worked as a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio. He left training as a specialist fifth class, a clerk typist, and was bound to be a finance clerk, but ended up being transferred to Saigon to work on the radio.
One of his strongest memories during his time in the Army is botching then-president Nixon's broadcast to the troops in 1969. Nixon was transmitting live, and Sajak controlled the feed from CBS. The beginning of Nixon's address went fine, but due to a particularly long pause for emphasis, Sajak accidentally cut the feed believing the address was over. As soon as he was returned the troops to their regularly scheduled music, he heard Nixon continue his speech and acknowledge the armed forces in Vietnam directly. Rather than interrupt the music he had put on, Sajak decided to keep the record going with the knowledge that tunes from home were a decent substitute for a "merry Christmas" from Nixon.
Although Sajak's position helped him gain experience for his career as an entertainer, he was not gung-ho about its relative cushiness.
"I used to feel a bit guilty about my relatively soft duty. After all, I was billeted in a hotel and there were plenty of nice restaurants around. But I always felt a little better when I met guys who came into town from the field and thanked us for bringing them a little bit of home. I always thought it strange that they should be thanking me, given what so many of them were going through on a daily basis."
Sajak has since maintained a high degree of respect for veterans and service members. He likens his work on Armed Forces Radio to what the USO provides, and notes that continuing to hear Vietnam veterans thank him is still humbling. Furthermore, Sajak has stated that veterans should receive more respect than they currently do.
"When our troops returned home from war, many were greeted with insults, not cheers, and all too often were portrayed in the media and in Hollywood films as drug addicts, misfits, perpetrators of atrocities and losers. The reality is that the Vietnam Veterans compiled an outstanding record of courage, service, and patriotism. They should be proud of their record and we should be proud of them."
When Sajak returned to civilian life, he worked a number of different jobs in the entertainment world. He DJ'd for WSM in Nashville, then worked as a voiceover artist on the Today Show, and in 1977 became a weatherman for KNBC in Los Angeles. It wasn't until 1983 that he took on the duties of hosting the Wheel of Fortune, and continues to do so today.
Sajak has noted a particular fondness for featuring veterans and service members on the show, as well as military families.
"I'm happy to report that, in terms of ratings and audience feedback, our viewers seem to enjoy and appreciate that fact. As a Vietnam vet, I'm especially gratified to see a change in the way veterans of that war are perceived and appreciated."