A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October/November 1998

VVA's First Convention
By Jim Doyle

LATE FALL 1983...

American combat troops had been out of Vietnam for ten years.

Ronald Reagan was completing the third year of his first term.

Two hundred and forty-one U.S. Marines had just been blown up by a suicide bomber in Beirut, and an unknown Marine Lieutenant Colonel was skulking around the Old Executive Office Building hatching a plan to trade arms for hostages and use the proceeds to illegally fund the Contras.

It was time to Rock 'n' Roll!

A generation of American men and women had answered their nation's call to duty and now, after the guns had been silent for a decade, it was time to demand what they had been promised but never received.

Justice and compassionate treatment for Vietnam veterans was not a priority for the VA when this group of veterans assembled in convention to lay the foundation for the leading force in gaining fair treatment for Vietnam veterans.

Vet Centers were grossly underfunded and their money was being threatened by the Reagan budget ax. PTSD and Agent Orange were subjects the government wouldn't even acknowledge. Unemployment among Vietnam veterans was high and they were angry.

It took courage to step forward and challenge the entrenched forces that had for decades controlled veterans affairs. An unholy trinity of government agencies, veterans service organizations, and congressional committees had a stranglehold on policy within the VA system.

Many Vietnam veterans felt shut out of the process, not only by the government but by the traditional veterans service organizations, as well. Many were met with indifference and outright hostility by veterans of previous wars. "Vietnam wasn't a real war," and "You lost" were only a few comments hurled at returning Vietnam veterans when they tried to join veterans organizations.

From this crucible came those who had the courage to step forward and be counted, some gone now and others who are still involved with VVA: Bobby Muller, Mary Stout, Donny Bodette, C.W. King, Lily Adams, Rick Weidman, Bob Mulholland, Linda VanDevanter, George Gorman, John Rowan, Skip Roberts, Jack Devine, Tom Corey, and dozens of others.

Those who were there say it was the best. No succeeding convention has had the same life force propelling it. "It was the beginning of the return home for many Vietnam veterans," says George Gorman, then five years out of the Marine Corps in 1983.

The stately Blue Room of the Shoreham Hotel, one of the grandest in the District, was chosen to house this meeting of Vietnam veterans of varied social, economic, and political backgrounds intent on creating a new veterans service organization devoted to the needs of Vietnam veterans.

The Blue Room, with its marble, beveled glass, and stately manner, was quite intentionally chosen to host VVA's Founding Convention. "It was a very clear decision," says Government Relations Director Rick Weidman, who was among those charged with planning and carrying out WA's Founding Convention. "We felt that the quiet dignity of the hotel would establish an environment of calm determination and strength."

It was also chosen for a more somber reason, according to David Evans, then chair of the West Virginia State Council and chair of the Government Affairs Committee at the convention. "The Shoreham was the site of the encampment of the 'bonus marchers' who were machine-gunned in the streets of Washington under the orders of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his aide, Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower," said Evans. The bonus marchers were WWI veterans who marched on Washington in an attempt to obtain fair treatment after their service.

"WE HAD NO RULES..."

In November 1983 the hotel was filled with Vietnam veterans from across the country with a wide range of interests and agendas. What bound them together was a common desire to create an organization that would force itself into the political process and send a clear, strong message: "Vietnam veterans are not irrelevant."

"We had no rules," laughed Weidman over coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Savannah the day before VVA's Seventh National Leadership Conference. "We literally had no rules for the convention. Who could speak? How long could they speak?"

"The only guideline we had was that the convention would operate under Robert's Rules of Order," confirmed George Gorman, who chaired the Membership Affairs hearings for that first convention. "Most of the time on the floor was spent hammering out our constitution, how we would govern ourselves as an organization."

The United Auto Workers assisted VVA in organizing the convention and supported it through use of its facilities in Washington. "The UAW provided us with access to their copying machines and other logistic and organizational resources during the convention," says Weidman. "Committees would meet for hours and pound out resolutions and constitutional provisions. Overnight we would go to the UAW headquarters and copy reams and reams of material so that they could be presented to the delegates the next morning for debate."

John Terzano, the first elected vice president of VVA, has similar memories. "We were working with Doug Stillman of the United Auto Workers. He and the union were very helpful in helping us organize, set up a structure and a resolutions process," he says. "At one point Stillman asked what rules we would use, and we just looked at him and said, 'Rules? What rules?' We had no experience trying to run a convention."

"CONTROLLED CHAOS..."

According to Terzano, the genesis of the convention was a presentation Bobby Muller made at a Vietnam War conference at the University of Southern California in the spring of 1983. "The grassroots had been clamoring for a convention for quite awhile," he remembers. "You have to remember that the organization started in 1978, and here it was five years later, and we were planning our first convention."

Evans, who also served as vice president of Chapter 38 in West Virginia, remembers the event as "controlled chaos."

Lily Jean Adams heard about VVA when she answered an article by Linda VanDevanter in Ms. Magazine in 1981. "I learned that VVA was outreaching to women vets, and I thought that was very important. I also thought the return trip was a great idea," she says, referring to the controversial trip to Vietnam made by Muller, Terzano, and other VVA representatives in December 1981. "I thought it was an important way to get more information about Agent Orange and the POW issue.

"I was living in Hawaii and received a call from Bobby asking me to run for the board at the Founding Convention," Adams says. "He wanted a board which was representative of all Vietnam vets."

A number of those attending the Founding Convention were or had been members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They helped guide the debate with their familiarity with Robert's Rules, according to John Rowan, a member of the New York delegation.

"Those of us who were in VVAW knew about Robert's Rules and made our names at the mikes," says Rowan, now VVA New York State Council president. "We had experience organizing and used that experience to guide the parliamentary process during debate."

"Some delegates were members of VVAW," remembers Gorman. "But the majority of delegates were interested in social justice and saw the fundamental roles of VVA as that of educating our membership about PTSD and Agent Orange, forcing the VA to do what the law required them to do, and creating a legitimate forum for discussing the Vietnam War."

Rowan remembers one of the major issues was whether VVA should allow its chapters to run clubs or bars. "That was a pretty remarkable discussion for a veterans organization," he says. "Should we or shouldn't we? We decided that we would 'grandfather' those chapters that had established clubs during the period prior to adopting a constitution, and in the future, unless it was approved by the national Board of Directors, we wouldn't have bars." Despite several subsequent efforts to rescind this policy, it remains part of the VVA Constitution.

"There was a heavy emphasis on women vets," recalls Gorman. "As a matter of fact, we passed a resolution supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. I don't think VVA could do that today."

"There was a real awareness of women vets," Rowan confirms. "The women practically had guys kissing their feet, they were so grateful."

"The way women vets were honored was very emotional and there was lots of support for us," Adams says. "It seemed like there were only about a dozen or so women there but we were treated as equals."

"EVERYTHING CAME OUT OF NOTHING..."

The first half day of the convention was devoted to a presentation on PTSD. The presentation was necessary, it was believed, in order to understand more clearly the damaging aspects of the disorder and how it affects the group dynamic. The practice was repeated at the Second National Convention in Detroit but has since been abandoned.

During the week, most delegates and those who toiled to insure the convention's success operated on minimal sleep. Marathon sessions began early in the morning and lasted until long after midnight every day. "It was a tense and exciting time," Gorman remembers.

"The New York delegation lived in one suite," remembers Rowan. "We survived on pizza and beer and nobody slept. Kenny Trautman and I slept on cots in the parlor of this suite. It was a pisser, everyone was psyched up. This was an event. Everything came out of nothing."

"THERE WAS ALOT OF ANGER..."

Congressional representatives also attended the event, some to praise the group and others to defend budget policies. VVA's Founding Principle, "Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another," sprang from the keynote address by Congressman David Bonior (D-Mich.).

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was also there. Simpson had been a vocal opponent of compensation for Agent Orange victims because he didn't believe the science was sufficient to prove the case.

"We worked with his staff to try and convince them that when he spoke he shouldn't mention Agent Orange," Terzano says. "Right before he began his remarks, Bobby leaned over to him and asked him again not to mention Agent Orange, because it was such a hot button issue and we didn't want the place to come apart."

True to his direct style, Simpson spoke about Agent Orange. He explained why he didn't support legislation compensating the victims of Agent Orange but said if WA could prove its case he would change his mind.

"He received a standing ovation from the delegates when he was finished," says Terzano. "They may not have agreed with him, but they repected his honesty, and I think he respected ours as well."

Simpson was challenged from the floor about Reagan administration budget cuts at the Vet Centers, a target of David Stockman and the Office of Management and Budget. "There was a lot of anger," Rowan recalls. "Vietnam veterans were pissed."

In spite of the fact that few participants remember whether an official agenda had been published, there were many issues which needed to be addressed beyond the obvious concerns relating to changing a recalcitrant VA health-care system that had shamed the nation's commitment to those who had answered its call to serve.

"WE WANTED TO BE DIFFERENT..."
Who could be a member? In-country vets? Combat vets? Era vets? Bad-paper vets? Incarcerated vets? These topics were all hotly debated during the convention.

VVA was distinguished from other veterans organizations by its desire to be inclusive and to eliminate barriers to membership. Even in the choice of titles for its leaders and designations of its political subdivisions, VVA members made decisions which were visible reminders that it was a different kind of organization. There would be no garrison caps for VVA. No commanders in posts, but presidents in chapters. No presumed ascension of leadership, but a purely democratic election process.

"Those of us who had been officers recognized that a large number of Vietnam combat veterans had gotten bad-paper discharges who didn't deserve them," Annapolis graduate and former Marine Captain Gorman remembers. "We felt that the character of your discharge shouldn't have anything to do with your eligibility to be a member of VVA."

"We wanted to be different," Adams recalls. "We were there to create an organization to deal with our issues—PTSD, Agent Orange, health care, POW/MIAs, and other things that the traditional organizations weren't doing."

Despite the outside perception of the group as radical and left of center, the delegates adopted a very strong position in favor of the draft, which survives today in VVA's Statement of Principles.

"Much to the surprise of a lot of people, we supported the draft," recalls Evans. "But we supported the fair and equitable application of the draft. If one goes, everyone goes. That position shook up a lot of people."

The resolution process was grueling and lasted until the early hours of the morning, every morning. The resolutions that were presented to the delegates and ultimately adopted would define the organization, determine its character, and establish its direction. "The resolutions were very important," Terzano says. "Without the resolutions it didn't really matter who was elected to lead because there wouldn't be anything to lead."

State councils with small delegations feared that the process was stacked against them by states with large delegate numbers, such as New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Some felt that everything was a "done deal" and "the fix was in." Not true.

"The smaller states even set up there own caucus," recall Terzano and Adams. "States like West Virginia and Georgia and Louisiana had small delegations and felt that even if they voted as a block they couldn't overcome the large voting blocks in the larger states."

Delegates from those larger states went so far as to meet with the Small State Caucus and explain that there was no universal agreement within their own delegations on candidates or policy positions. The Small State Caucus actively campaigned for candidates and policy positions, demonstrating VVA's hallmark level of democracy.

"It was very open and democratic," says Terzano. "What really set us apart from other organizations was the democracy. Every two years candidates had to stand before the delegates and ask for their votes. There was no automatic line of ascension for the leadership."

The process was so open at that first convention that a delegate from Indiana showed up and decided at the last minute to run for office. Most candidates didn't even know how to campaign for office. "People were shyly pulling out campaign buttons, wondering if it was okay," laughs Adams. "I didn't know how to campaign and didn't even put together a brochure until the last minute."

"NOW YOU HAVE A CHAIR..."

There was a genuine sense of camaraderie at the Founding Convention, a willingness to put aside differences and work for the common good of Vietnam veterans. Of course there were debates on issues and sometimes very vocal opposition to specific issues and positions, but that was to be expected from a group that had come together from all over the country for the first time in an effort to build a new veterans organization.

Lily Adams recalls one funny incident involving two delegates. "Someone who was standing made a comment about 'only the important people' having chairs to sit in," she says. "So this guy gets up out of his chair on the dais and takes it down on the floor to the other guy and handed it to him. 'Now, you have a chair,' he said."

A fundamental issue for delegates to the first convention was an age-old military maxim: identify and recognize your enemy. In this case, the enemy was the VA system that had failed its own lofty mandate—To care for him who has borne the battle, his widow, and orphans.

Another issue which crystallized the difference between VVA and other veterans groups was the fact that chapters were autonomous, as opposed to having national leaders speak for the entire organization. "It was very liberating," recalls Evans. "Chapters were allowed to develop their own positions on issues without being dictated to by the national organization."

The convention was so packed with business that the hotel staff was busy taking down tables and folding chairs in preparation for another convention before debate had ended on the last day.

"I was Resolutions chair," Terzano says. "One night we worked on resolutions until about 4:00 a.m., and we were hungry, so we just went down to the kitchen and fixed ourselves some breakfast. We took over the hotel."

What was the life force that propelled this historic coming together of America's newest generation of veterans? Support. Emotion. Honor. Dignity. Respect. Camaraderie. The joy of being together with soul mates. Putting aside differences to work for the common good. The recognition that as Vietnam veterans they had a right and an obligation to speak out on behalf of social justice. Delegates helping each other learn and understand the process. Everyone there for each other.

Once the business was completed, a constitution adopted, and resolutions passed, the group stood and sang "America the Beautiful."

Then, the first democratically elected leadership of VVA took the oath of office in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a fitting backdrop to introduce an uncommon veterans service organization. Afterwards, a wreath was laid at the apex of The Wall, which said simply, "In Honor."

Perhaps Lily Adams, elected to the first VVA Board of Directors, best sums up that first convention: "We felt like we were back in Vietnam, but this time we were creating something, not destroying something."
 

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