Jul. 2—BUNKER HILL — Luis Nino paused for a few moments as he looked at a gray shirt that sits inside a display case at his parents' Bunker Hill home.
"Pure American," the shirt reads, with a bald eagle flying out over the top of a flag.
Underneath the flag are the words, "Live free."
But while it might appear to just be a shirt to some, the piece of fabric is sacred to Nino.
It was the shirt his father died in.
And while Pablo Nino — who served in the United States Marine Corps — taught his son many lessons, Luis acknowledged that perhaps the greatest was love of country.
"My dad taught me patriotism," Luis, a U.S. Marines gunnery sergeant, said. " ... He affected me big time."
Pablo died in February 2009 after suffering a heart attack while at work, and Luis' mother, Juanita, died just eight years later.
But instead of turning his grief and sadness over their deaths into something negative, Luis said he did something positive, converting his parents' living room into a massive tribute to the America he loves so much and the one he vowed to serve and protect all those years ago.
It's the same room where he even revised the U.S. Flag Code in 2016, making 20 separate changes and then hand-delivering those changes to the Washington, D.C., offices of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sens. Todd Young and Mike Braun of Indiana.
And while Luis didn't get the response he wanted when it came to those changes, he smiled and said he's a patient man.
From the giant American flag floor display to the red, white and blue ceiling fan and everything in between, Luis said he began working on the room as a way to heal.
"My biggest thing is that this arguably saved my life," he said, motioning his arms around the room. "Look how many veterans are committing suicide or something because they can't handle their lives. I did the opposite. I turned to art. ... Doing all this allowed me to grieve in peace without me having to turn around and hold anger in my heart."
Luis is unabashed when it comes to sharing his passion for America or his love for its flag, though he admitted he believes there is a current divide in the country that's affecting that overall sense of patriotism.
Take Sept. 11, 2001, for example, he explained.
"When 9/11 happened, I would sit there (with his fellow Marines) and say when those people were jumping out of the building, is that an American? Is that an illegal? Christian or Atheist? Homosexual or heterosexual? Republican or Democrat? It doesn't matter. We're all human beings, and we said we'd never forget," he said.
"And if you remember what happened after 9/11, the day after, it was probably the most patriotic this country has ever been in our lifetimes and probably will ever be," he added. "I remember as a Marine when I walked around and, say, I was at Kroger, and it was like I was Moses and the Red Sea. I'd say, 'What are you doing?' And they'd say, 'You're a Marine, go ahead of us.' Remember everybody flew the American flag and everybody was so patriotic. But then what happened on 9/12? ... Even more, look what eventually happened on January 6 (2021)."
A self-declared Independent, Luis admitted he doesn't want to sound political, but he does want to make his feelings known when it comes to current issues facing this country.
"So what I try to teach Marines to motivate them is that here in this country, we can agree to disagree, but we're still Americans," he said. " ... Why can we not look at each other as Americans and see the beauty that this country offers? We just need to learn to agree to disagree about things and move on."
It's a concept Luis even had an opportunity to address with KISS lead singer Gene Simmons when the two met a few years back.
"I told him about patriotism, so he signed this photo to me and he turned around and said I brought him to tears because he'd never met someone so patriotic," Luis said, pointing at the picture on a nearby wall.
In the picture, Simmons and a smiling Luis can be seen giving thumbs-up signs, Luis decked out head to toe in red, white and blue as his alter ego "Gunny Americano," a play on words to his role in the Marines.
"It's going to take all of us working together," he continued. "My heart does not beat alone. It takes my lungs, the rest of my body. ... That's the thing I try to focus on is about unity and importance. We're all important. We all have a say. We can agree to disagree and do it in a different fashion. That's the beauty of this country, and that's the biggest thing I look at."
Luis then looked around the room at the little piece of Americana he created just three short years ago and admitted he's going to miss seeing it.
The same day the Tribune was there, the house sold, and Luis noted that everything but the personal effects of the room would be donated.
But Luis is also at peace with his decision to move forward, he said, because patriotism doesn't just live on the walls of a room.
It lives in the heart.
"America means everything," he said, when asked what his overall message would be to others. " ... I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but America. This is a home, but America is my bigger home. I can always find another house like this. America is everything and anything, and the beauty of America is definitely its people."
"And the real beauty and power is that you can be anything you want to be here," Luis continued. "It's the land of the free and the home of the brave. ... And the American flag, man, if you don't feel patriotic when that thing flies, I don't know what else to tell you."
Kim Dunlap can be reached at 765-860-3256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.