Sheriff Robert J. Bezotte 08.13.10

First night in Vietnam, stationed in the heart of Phu Bai, Robert Bezotte was kept awake by the sound of incoming mortar rounds, and finally, dragged from his bunk by the sound of the Vietcong blowing up the base’s ammo depot.  Along with his fellow greenhorns, he piled out of the barracks and watched the fireworks, asking himself, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?”

Then a nineteen-year-old kid from Walled Lake, he’d enlisted early, hoping to go in on the ‘buddy plan’ with his best friend.  “We went through basic training together,” says Bezotte, “Then I never saw him again.  He stayed Stateside and I went to Vietnam.  Ironic, isn’t it?”

At the time of his enlistment, Bezotte was a self-described drag racing nut who spent a lot of spare time pushing hotrods to the limit along stretches of Grand River.  “There’s another bit of irony,” he chuckles.  “Because now I give out speeding tickets…”
Indeed.  Bezotte was elected Sheriff of Livingston County in 2004 after an illustrious career in law enforcement.  He made his way to the top through a series of carefully chosen career moves, each of which—along with his military service—prepared him for his current role.  “I’ve done about every job on the force you can do,” he says.  “I began as a corrections officer in 1973; I’ve been a deputy, a lieutenant and an undersheriff.  Still, of all those steps, I think the Army prepared me for this better than anything.  I feel fortunate for the experience, fortunate for the way the service changed me as a person, and most of all, fortunate for having come back alive and uninjured, because plenty did not.”

A big man with a no-nonsense expression and a commanding voice, Bezotte is the kind of sheriff that if he tells you to keep your hands in sight, in sight they stay.  But a deep current of emotion runs through him when he speaks of his time in Vietnam; clearly, topics such as The Wall, which lists the more than 58,000 servicemen and women who lost their lives, are difficult to discuss.  “I haven’t seen the photographs of my time over there in twenty years, and I think, in 38 years of marriage, I’ve spoken about Vietnam maybe four times.  She asks, but I usually respond, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

So, it is a special honor that Visionalist was allowed to ask him about his experiences, and a defining statement as to his personal courage and commitment to fellow vets that Sheriff Bezotte agreed to share details of his time overseas.  This segment of Our Vietnam Generation promises to be among the most heart-rending and exciting of all—while filming Sheriff Bezotte on duty, an emergency call came in for a serious issue in his vicinity, and we were able to film the entire scenario, from start to finish.

Afterward, in his Howell office, Sheriff Bezotte outlined his many harrowing experiences, both in country and coming home.  He confesses to harboring anger still at the way he, and his fellow vets, were treated as they returned home after having done all—and more—that their country required.  “We were greeted with outright hostility in many cases,” he says.  “If you haven’t been there, seen combat, I really question your right to pass judgment.  It still makes me mad when I hear that we ‘lost the war’.  If the military had been allowed to run the war instead of the politicians, we’d have won it hands down.  Look at the Gulf War…”

An alliance between a sheriff and a local motorcycle club seems on the surface to be a bit odd, but not in the case of Bezotte and Rolling Thunder, a club which has dedicated itself to helping vets of all wars in their struggle to mainstream back into civilian life.  “Rolling Thunder represents everything that’s good about Livingston County.  They refuse to allow the community to forget about the sacrifices made by veterans; they show up at rallies, at gatherings, at military funerals.  And they do it for the cause of remembering veterans, nothing more—there’s nothing in it for them.”

Having already served with honor, Sheriff Bezotte continues to do his part by flying the POW flag on the staff in front of the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department along with the State of Michigan flag and Old Glory.  “We need to find any soldier left over there, whether still alive or not.  We need to repatriate remains if must be—but we have to do it.  It is the honorable course to take.”

“To me,” he says with sincerity, “The  POW flag flying outside is just as important as the other ones…”


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