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Jaywalking: His day in the sun

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  • Vietnam vet Bob Zraunig of Greenfield by way of Shelburne Falls, wave to adoring Fenway Park fans Thursday in Boston. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Greenfield Vietnam veteran Bob Zraunig, who grew up in Shelburne Falls, is shown on Fenway Park’s center field Jumbotron Thursday, when the Red Sox saluted him for his service. contributed photo


Monday, July 24, 2017

Bob Zraunig still remembers what it was like to return stateside after fighting in the Vietnam War.

He has not forgotten the “little heckles” as he described them, when he was walking through the airport and people were saying things like, “Why are you fighting other people’s wars?” He remembers other GIs telling similar stories of icy receptions from a nation that questioned this country’s involvement. Some protestors went so far as to spit on soldiers as they returned to this country after risking their lives to defend it.

It’s those memories that helped make Thursday so special for Zraunig, when 35,000 people clapped and cheered for him as he was introduced at Fenway Park in Boston. Zraunig was chosen to be honored as part of the Boston Red Sox “Hats off to Heroes” ceremony, which honors military members. Zraunig said the moment was overwhelming, as the reception at the old ballpark was unlike anything he had ever received before.

“It was the complete opposite of what we received when all of us GIs came back from Vietnam,” Zraunig said Monday afternoon. “It was just amazing that between 30,000 to 35,000 people were clapping for a Vietnam veteran. I had children coming up to me congratulating me for my service. They were giving me fist bumps. Just walking up toward the seat, I must have clapped hundreds of hands.”

Zraunig grew up as an Army brat. The son of a Colrain native, Zraunig’s father Russell “Dutch” Zraunig was in the service for 22 years, and when Bob was young, he did a lot of traveling. Eventually his father retired and moved back to the area, settling in Shelburne Falls. Zraunig attended Arms Academy, where he played baseball and was an All-Western Mass. center fielder. Others on his team included Harper “Skip” Gerry, Gary Hall, Dave Bishop, Jim Alden, Pete Fairbanks, Dennis Lively, Pete Shippee and Bob Wallace.

Zraunig graduated from Arms in 1965 and volunteered for the service — right in the middle of the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 until 1975. The United States got heavily involved in the fighting in the early 1960s and remained directly involved until 1973.

Zraunig left home for the service in September of 1965 and went to Fort Dix, N.J., where he went through basic training and radio school. His first assignment sent him to Nellingen Base near Stuttgart, Germany, where he was involved in communications with the 94th Combat Engineers Battalion. In December 1967, Zraunig found himself in position for a promotion to Sergeant E5, which he was warned about accepting.

“A few guys told me not to take the promotion, because they said I was going to Vietnam,” Zraunig recalled. “I figured I would take a chance. Two days later, I was ordered to go to Vietnam.”

Zraunig spent a year in Vietnam, serving as Commo (Communication) Chief for B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 32nd Artillery near Tay Ninh. In December 1968, he flew home to the United States to be discharged. He was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal. His unit received the Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon and the Meritorious Unit Commendation Ribbon.

When Zraunig moved home, he married his wife Muriel and after having two boys (Matt and Mark), he became involved in youth baseball. Zraunig served as the Greenfield Minor League president for one season and coached in the league for five or six years. He then joined Peter Wozniak and Dennis Estabrook in helping to establish a Mickey Mantle league in Turners Falls. Zraunig also had a daughter, Tara, who now works at John Hancock, which partners with the Red Sox on the “Hats off to Heroes” promotion. Tara filled out the nomination form and the family later found out that Bob Zraunig had been chosen.

“I was one of the lucky ones to be picked,” Zraunig said.

On Thursday, the family made the trip to Fenway Park for a hot and sticky day game against the Toronto Blue Jays. During the third inning, Zraunig met with a Red Sox official and he was honored during the fourth inning, where he walked out onto the field and was broadcast on the big screen as the public address announcer read off the list of his accomplishments. Zraunig said he spent nearly a minute waving to the crowd, and even addressed the Red Sox dugout.

“I’m glad they were clapping for all the Vietnam Veterans,” Zraunig said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Perhaps replacing — or at least fading — the memory of how the Vietnam vets were treated after returning from war.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.