When you hear the name of Pat Sajak two associations likely come to mind: Wheel of Fortune and Vanna White. After you read this article, the third that should come to mind is “Pat Sajak: Vietnam veteran.” You heard me right. Long before hitting it big on Wheel of Fortune, Sajak sharpened his entertainment skills in the jungles of Vietnam.
I grew up watching Wheel of Fortune each night. I’m not sure whether my family watched it for the challenge of guessing the correct letters and phrases or simply to watch Vanna White spin those letters; I’ll leave that for the ether to decide. Either way, Wheel of Fortune was always a show that captivated my attention. Little did I know that the unassuming, sometimes snarky man hosting the show was a Vietnam war veteran and one of the men a cult-classic movie was loosely based upon.
From Poverty to Vietnam
Patrick Leonard Sajdak was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1946 to parents Leonard Anthony Sajdak and Joyce Backal. Patrick would later drop the “d” in his last name for professional reasons and to ease pronunciation. Sajak’s parents were by no means wealthy when he was a child. His father worked in a local factory and made just enough each month to pay the family’s bills. Unfortunately, Pat’s father died when he was still a young boy and the family lost a wage earner in addition to a dad. The poverty Pat experienced as a child was made more bearable by the fact that he was wealthy with love from his mother and grandparents, who cared for him and ensured that his needs were met.
Like many wealthy individuals, the feeling of financial lack as a child no doubt propelled Sajak to pursue success and financial freedom as he grew into adulthood.
I’ve heard it said by hundreds of people over the years that “money won’t make you happy.” That is true, but not having money will definitely make you sad. I’ve also had a wealthy friend of mine tell me that once you’re rich you don’t really think about money anymore. As in, the joy of having it doesn’t run your life. That said, I can say from experience that when you don’t have money, that is ALL you think about and that feeling can run your life. I’m sure some of you would say the same thing.
However, one thing that money can be is freeing and that desire for freedom can be a major motivator to work hard. Pat Sajak no doubt wanted to be free from want and he worked hard to make that happen.
His first major opportunity came in the most unlikely of places: the jungles of Vietnam.
Pat Sajak Goes to Saigon
In 1987, writer Mitch Markowitz and director Barry Levinson released Good Morning Vietnam, which was loosely based on the experiences of late Air Force DJ Adrian Cronauer. While in Vietnam, Adrian Cronauer worked to create a morning show on the American Forces Vietnam Network that would boost troop morale. Cronauer was a high-energy DJ and he created a program called Dawn Busters, in which he would open every morning segment by shouting, “Good morning Vietnam!” Dawn Busters was the inspiration for the movie Good Morning Vietnam.
Good Morning Vietnam took its viewers onto the bases and into the jungles of Vietnam and gave them an inside (albeit exaggerated) view of what our troops were experiencing there.
A couple of years after Cronauer created the morning show in Vietnam and made famous (or infamous) the phrase “Good morning Vietnam,” Pat Sajak found himself in Cronauer’s seat as the show’s new host.
In a piece he penned for USO.org, Sajak recounts those early days in the Army and in Vietnam,
“Before I was Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune, I was Pat Sajak Vietnam DJ — I was an Army Spc. 5th class who had joined the service, been trained as a clerk-typist, was sent to Vietnam as a finance clerk. After repeated attempts, I had been transferred to Saigon to be a disc jockey, as I had been in civilian life. The Army can work in mysterious ways.”
All veterans know that the “big” military isn’t the best at using you in the most intelligent ways based on your skillset. Special Forces soldiers have a bit more luck in this area, but generally speaking, the big military uses you as a checkers piece on a huge game board. Thankfully for both the troops in Vietnam and for everyone who has enjoyed watching Sajak since, in his case, the Army came through and put him where he should have been all along.
Good Morning Vietnam!
As a disc jockey in Saigon, Sajak quickly settled into his new home as host of Dawn Busters. When speaking of his use of the phrase “Good morning Vietnam,” Sajak said the following,
“It was a phrase I shouted virtually every weekday at 6 a.m. from the studios of the American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon between October 1968 and December 1969. I wasn’t the first to use those memorable words—that was Adrian Cronauer, who was famously portrayed by Robin Williams — but that became the signature sign-on of every early-morning DJ on AFVN.”
For more than a year, every morning at 0600 hours, Sajak greeted the nearly 500,000 troops listening on the American Forces Vietnam Network, in the fun, sarcastic way that was depicted in the movie. Even though this billet was no doubt a fun one for Sajak and one that he clearly excelled in, Pat recounts that he felt a bit guilty that he was there simply to entertain the troops and not to be a troop. Pat said,
“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 was strange that they should be thanking me, given what so many of them were going through on a daily basis. But they reminded me of the importance of providing entertainment to those who serve — something the USO knows very well. To this day, my fellow vets from that era repeat those thank-yous, and it’s really very humbling.”
I hate to say it, but I know exactly how Sajak feels. I was no radio DJ in the Marine Corps but I did have a similar task of boosting troop morale. I was in the Marine Corps Band and one of the major things we did was travel the country and the world to drum up support for our troops and to provide them with a morale booster. It is a weird feeling to both know that your mission is important because the men and women in the muck and mire need to know that they are supported at home, but also that you are not able to go commiserate or fight alongside them. It’s tough.
Troop morale was a big issue during the Vietnam war and afterward. Men returned home not to ticker-tape parades as they did following World War II. Instead, they were met with abuse and vitriol. Because of this treatment, far too many Vietnam veterans fell through society’s cracks and never pulled themselves back out. Pat Sajak and the other DJs stationed overseas gave these men hope and entertainment while they were deployed. It really was an important job.
Pat Sajak’s Post-Vietnam Career Begins
After leaving Saigon behind, Sajak returned to the United States and dabbled in various types of media before being offered a chance to host Wheel of Fortune. The game show had been created by Merv Griffin in 1975 and it was gaining popularity across the American TV market. Sajak accepted the position as host in 1981. Apparently, he has enjoyed the work, because, now nearly 40 years later, he is still the ever-popular game show’s host.
Sajak has hosted the show with Vanna White as his partner essentially from the beginning. While White is nearly 10 years his junior, Pat said he believes they are both getting close to ending their award-winning, Guinness Book of World Records-achieving streak. (Pat Sajak has earned a Guinness for the longest career of a game-show host for the same show).
About retirement, Sajak said, “I’d like to leave while the show’s still popular, and I’d like to leave before people ask me to leave.” He continued, “And I’d like to leave before people tune in and see me and go, ‘Ooh, what the hell happened to him?'”
Whenever he chooses to retire, television will lose a true personality — and a true beauty. Next time you hear the name Pat Sajak just maybe you’ll think about Pat the Vietnam veteran rather than just Pat the “TV show guy.”