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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
RANDY WRIGHT
WE ARE ALL VIETNAM VETERANS

BY RICHARD CURREY
The notion of leading a local VVA chapter and helping to build it into a vibrant force in the organization was not part of Randy Wright’s personal agenda in the late summer of 1971. Fresh from the Vietnam War as an Army platoon commander, Wright was intent on becoming a lawyer.

“I got out of the Army in August and started law school at the end of that month,” Wright said. “To call law school a culture shock would be a gross understatement. I was totally absorbed in readjusting to civilian life, succeeding academically, becoming an attorney, and building my practice.”

Along the way, however, Wright’s thoughts returned to his days as a 1st Lieutenant with the 3rd Bn., 21st Inf., 196th Light Infantry Brigade, in the Tam Ky area west of Chu Lai and later in the Que Son Valley west of Danang. “Back here at home I watched the progress of the war and the impact of the antiwar movement, and at the same time saw the neglect and abuse of Vietnam veterans. I started to wonder if I shouldn’t play a more active role if there wasn’t something I could do. I wanted to see if I could make a difference.”

In the early 1980s Wright investigated veterans’ organizations. He looked into the VFW and American Legion but wasn’t happy with what he found. “Both were still dominated by World War II vets and, at least in my community, were indifferent or patronizing to Vietnam vets.”

When the young lawyer tried a meeting of VVA’s Detroit-based Chapter 9, he liked what he saw and heard. He joined and went on to serve on several committees. Wright was soon elected to the Chapter 9 Board of Directors and became Chapter President in 1983. “Between 1983 and 1985 we grew Chapter 9 from less than 200 members to about 800 members. And we created a new chapter headquarters building that taught me a great deal about what can be achieved in a community and on behalf of veterans.”

The campaign to reclaim and restore an abandoned and decaying building in downtown Detroit is illustrative of Randy Wright’s focus, as well as the entrepreneurial, negotiating, and organizational skills he brought to VVA. The building, which formerly housed a restaurant, was purchased by Chapter 9 before Wright was president. The aim had always been to create the chapter headquarters on that site, but the project was stalled and the building remained shuttered.

After Wright became president, he mobilized the chapter’s energies and directed efforts that sparked widespread community support. “We received tremendous volunteer and financial assistance from labor unions, the Association of General Contractors, and other community groups,” Wright said. “We had a campaign theme: We Are All Vietnam Veterans. We took back the streets in that neighborhood, pushed out the drug dealers, and launched a revitalization of that entire section of urban Detroit. A local television special was even produced about the project.”

If the new Chapter 9 Headquarters invigorated a failing sector of the city, it also helped to redefine the notion of community service by a group of veterans that had seen itself stereotyped in film and television as the “tripwire generation,” sold to the rest of America as a band of freaked-out, ready-to-snap men hovering on the borders of society. Wright recalls many of the TV police shows of the period where the bad guys were all too often Vietnam veterans. The rationale and merits of the war were under fire, and its veterans were misunderstood. “Or,” as Wright recalled, “more often we were simply ignored.”

Under Wright’s leadership, Chapter 9 helped to change public perception of Vietnam veterans, challenge stereotypes, and make an authentic difference in the life of a city. “It was very gratifying,” Wright said, “when we were able to host the 1985 National Convention. I saw—and I know others did, too—the power and influence of grassroots efforts.”

One of the highlights of that convention was the appearance of Jim Armstrong on the Convention floor and in its meeting rooms. In addition to his Chapter 9 responsibilities, Wright was serving as VVA National Committee Chair for Prison Initiatives. Armstrong was president of the incarcerated VVA chapter at Jackson Prison. “Jim and I negotiated his release to attend the Convention. He was accompanied by two armed guards who volunteered for the duty, and I’m pretty sure they were Vietnam vets, too,” Wright said. “Jim did a great job and provided great leadership for the vets at the prison. The warden really appreciated his work and responded to our request accordingly. Bringing Jim out to represent incarcerated vets and join his brothers on the outside was truly memorable.

“It was around this time that I was invited to serve on the VVA National Board of Directors.” Elected originally by the existing board to fill a vacancy, Wright was elected for a full term at the next convention. “I had been able to demonstrate leadership and organizational skills at the local level, and it was my privilege to bring my organizational, business, and legal skills to the National BOD level. Even more important, perhaps, was my willingness to be led as well as lead.”

It was as a BOD member that Wright was introduced to international outreach and policy. He found himself grappling with some of the pivotal issues that have faced this generation of veterans, including POW/MIA concerns, Agent Orange, Amerasian children, and the delivery of medical supplies to Vietnam despite the American embargo.

“I have such tremendous respect for everyone I worked with at VVA. I learned a great deal from everybody I encountered,” he said. “It was VVA that helped shape work I’ve continued to do as a board member of Search for Common Ground, an organization committed to Track II diplomacy, which is negotiation and conflict resolution offered by non-government resources and individuals.”

Randy Wright will turn 61 in August, and he’s not slowing down. He maintains a busy law practice in Birmingham, Michigan, where he is general counsel to many corporations in the United States and abroad. He is a member of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Sections of both the American Bar Association and the Michigan Bar. He also is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Birmingham Education Foundation, which works with the Birmingham Public School District in seeking projects that promise to enhance learning for all students but cannot be funded without private support.

In 2002 Wright took time out from this formidably busy life to travel back to Vietnam with his 18-year-old son. “I walked trails I had once walked in full combat gear, with my platoon, over 30 years ago. I looked ahead to see a kid about the same age as my guys were when we were here as soldiers, except this time I was looking at my son. It was eerie.”

Wright characterizes the return to Vietnam as “amazing, totally awesome,” and credits the trip with allowing his son to come to a greater understanding of the war and its costs. Many of these insights later fueled a father-son presentation at Wright’s son’s high school.

But the trip did something else for Randy Wright, cementing his belief that veterans of all wars and all generations must maintain their ties. “Stay in touch with your brothers in arms,” he said. “Join a veterans’ organization. There will always be a common bond between you that non-vets will envy but they will never comprehend.”

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