In 1999, Snopes came across this question about musician Lee Greenwood, the writer and performer of the patriotic song "God Bless the USA":
I am in the military, and am really interested in whether or not the legend about Lee Greenwood is true.
As you know, he is getting richer because of his 'Proud to be an American' song, and the legend is that he avoided the draft and fled to Canada to avoid service. Despite his lyrics 'I’ll gladly stand up and defend her still today' . . .
When the ground combat phase of the Persian Gulf War brought about Iraq’s surrender in a startlingly short 100 hours in February 1991, one could hardly watch television or listen to the radio without hearing the stirringly patriotic song "God Bless the USA," written and performed by Greenwood, at least once a day. (Greenwood was the Country Music Association’s award for Male Vocalist of the Year in 1983 and 1984, and his "God Bless the USA" had been awarded the CMA’s Song of the Year honors in 1985.) As a result, the song become even more firmly entrenched as staple background music for Persian Gulf War retrospectives, Independence Day celebrations, and Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembrance ceremonies, and it has undergone another resurgence in popularity since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The song has taken Greenwood to the flight decks of aircraft carriers and the cockpits of fighter planes and earned him a special award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He has met five presidents, cashed in on big-dollar corporate appearances and performed at every imaginable type of sporting event. And after the Sept. 11 attacks, he climbed atop the rubble at the World Trade Center to sing the song for rescue workers. In a recent opinion poll on America Online, 'God Bless the U.S.A.' topped all other patriotic songs, including 'God Bless America' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'
In case you’re not an American who now has the lyrics permanently memorized, here they are:
If tomorrow all the things were gone
I’d worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife
I’d thank my lucky stars
To be living here today
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can’t take that away.
I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free,
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you
And defend her still today,
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.
From the lakes of Minnesota
To the hills of Tennessee,
Across the plains of Texas
From sea to shining sea.
From Detroit down to Houston
And New York to L.A.,
There’s pride in every American heart
And it’s time we stand and say:
It didn’t take long for the rumor to begin that Greenwood, who was reaping acclaim (and royalties) for his modern-day American anthem, was actually a draft dodger who fled the USA for Canada in order to avoid being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. It doesn’t take much familiarity with urban legends to see this as another “famous person is the opposite of his public persona” tale, the flip side to claims that musician John Denver served as a sniper for the U.S. Army and children’s television host Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers) was once a member of one of America’s elite military forces.
Greenwood was born on Oct. 27, 1942. During the Vietnam War era, young men between the ages of 18 and 26 were eligible to be drafted for military service, and until the lottery system was instituted at the end of 1969, the order of call was to take oldest first. As Greenwood turned 26 at the tail end of 1968, this would have made him a prime draft candidate throughout 1969. The biography on his official website mentions that he forsook a college scholarship, a promising baseball career, and even his own high school graduation in the early 1960s to perform as a musician in Nevada casino lounges. He performed by night and dealt blackjack by day before moving to Los Angeles, breaking through with a demo session in Nashville in 1978, and scoring success with “It Turns Me Inside Out” in 1981. Since details of Greenwood’s life during the late 1960s are difficult to come by, we asked him directly:
It angers me when I hear this. I never served in the military because I had children at the age of 17. I was given the classification 3A. The draft never got to that #. If it had, like my father, I would have left my wife and children (for I know they would have understood) to fight and die if necessary for my country.
(A 3-A classification was a hardship deferment given to an eligible male if “service would cause hardship upon his family.”)
A Los Angeles Times article about Greenwood noted that he is familiar with the experience of a father going off to war while leaving a wife and children at home, but from the other side:
He says his parents divorced after his mother grew bitter because his father went off to serve in World War II despite having two toddlers at home.
His lasting youthful impression of the military, though, is the respect he saw directed at soldiers and their uniforms. 'When they hitchhiked on the highways, people would always give them rides; they were honored by people,' he remembers.
Greenwood may not fit the image of the super patriot who rushes out to enlist and serve his country during wartime (the song isn’t written from the point of view of someone who claims to have made sacrifices for his country — it’s an expression of gratitude towards those who did make sacrifices to protect the freedoms the rest of us enjoy), but very few celebrities do live up to the expectations created by those who project the artist into his work. (Stephen Crane, for example, wrote quite convincingly of the horrors of war without having experienced them first-hand, but "The Red Badge of Courage" is no less a masterpiece of literature — and Crane is no less an author. Greenwood may not be a veteran himself, but neither was he a draft dodger.