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

October 1999/November 1999

We Are Family

Chapter Of The Year 310--Ann Arbor, Michigan

By Jim Doyle

It started out much the same as many VVA chapters began: An ad was placed in the local newspaper, "Vietnam veterans, we need to meet.''

"About ten people showed up at the Saline American Legion hall for that meeting,'' Michigan State Council president and Chapter 310 charter member Sandie Wilson said in an interview.

Twelve years later at VVA's National Convention in Anaheim, former dog handler Dave Hizer, a member of the United Auto Workers Veterans Committee, and former Seabee Gary Lillie walked proudly to the dais to receive the award for VVA Chapter of the Year on behalf of Washtenaw County Chapter 310.

Hizer and Lillie represented a group that, from the very beginning, chose to place Vietnam veterans at the forefront of activity in a community that some refer to as "the Socialist Republic of Ann Arbor.'' Since receiving its charter on Memorial Day 1987, the chapter has successfully promoted a positive image of Vietnam veterans in the county and beyond through its community-outreach programs.

Whether it is maintaining a food pantry to help Vietnam veterans and their families who need temporary assistance, or sending a specially designed greeting card to the families of each of the local Vietnam KIAs and POW/MIAs each Christmas, Chapter 310 never retreats from its motto, "Never Again Shall A Vet Coming Home From Battle Be Made To Feel Alone And Unappreciated.''

"We really are a family,'' says Lillie. He remembers that when he first joined the chapter in 1991, young children came to meetings and played with toys and crawled between the legs of veterans.

"The families are what holds it all together,'' agreed Wilson, who tells the story of Peter Price, the son of a chapter member who suffered a broken leg and a head injury when he was hit by a car three years ago. When Price was taken to Mott's Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, his parents were extremely anxious. Wilson was a nurse at the hospital.

"Gary Lillie called me that morning and said we had two members in the hospital,'' Wilson said. "One guy had a broken pelvis, and Peter had been hit by a car.'' Wilson visited the veteran with the broken pelvis, the result of falling out of a tree while trimming branches, and then went looking for Peter Price's parents.

"I didn't really do anything I wouldn't have done for any other patient,'' she said. "I saw that Peter was on the surgery schedule and went and told his dad, ‘Come with me, I'm going to take care of Peter.' ''

Peter recovered from the broken leg and is still in rehabilitation for his head injury. That doesn't prevent him from being an active participant in all the activities of the chapter.

In a recent edition of the 310 Dispatch, the chapter newsletter, associate Jane Kinzinger wrote about the chapter's participation in the annual Heritage Festival.

"I've never seen such dedication and determination as was displayed by Peter Price,'' she wrote about his work manning the identification-tag booth at the festival. The tags are provided to children in the community.

"He was glued to the table, leaving only when he made sure someone was covering for him. He explained the dog tags to prospective customers and made endless runs back and forth with order forms, money, and the finished product.

"Peter kept the dog tag business moving forward,'' she continued, noting the young man did not slow down until the end of the day when no more orders could be filled.

For the past twelve years the chapter has sponsored a USO-style Christmas show at the Ann, Arbor VA hospital. Every patient in every ward receives a gift package, such as a watch, headset radio, or electronic game. In addition, each receives a bag filled with personal care items, boxes of crackers, candy, and other gifts.

The event includes entertainment, ranging from the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic to the Thunderers Drum and Bugle Corps, a group supported by the chapter. The reigning Miss Michigan and Miss Washtenaw County also attend to meet and talk with the patients, as does Stacey Heisler-Mason who has performed for the patients in the hospital every year since 1993 when she was Miss Michigan.

Supporters look forward to helping. Much of the reason for this continuing support is because the chapter makes a special effort to thank all those who respond. All participants are sent a detailed financial report that describes how the money for the event was spent.

When Hizer and Lillie returned home following the Anaheim convention in August, the Ann Arbor News ran a feature article about the chapter's award. The chapter immediately sent thank-you letters to chapter supporters, explaining to them that without their assistance the chapter would never have been considered for the prestigious award.

Retired Navy corpsman Dave "Doc'' Martinez experienced the chapter's family feeling before he  joined. "My wife and I were eating at a Denny's Restaurant in 1992, and I noticed a guy wearing a VVA hat,'' he said. "I walked up to him and asked, ‘Are you a Vietnam vet?' and he said, ‘Yes, are you?' '' Martinez answered, "Yes,'' and John Kinzinger stood up, shook his hand, and said, "Welcome Home!''

"No one had ever said that to me,'' Martinez said. Now in his second year as chapter president, Martinez agrees that the chapter is like an extended family.

"There's always something we can do,'' says charter member Kinzinger. "We want to make a difference for others and it leaves you with a good feeling to help others.''

Helping others is at the core of chapter activities. Until they submitted the application for Chapter of the Year, 310's members didn't realize how much they had done.

"We had thought about submitting the chapter newsletter for an award, and then John Kinzinger said, ‘Why don't we submit for Chapter of the Year?' '' said Lillie. "We only had a couple of days until the deadline, and we sat down in Doc's computer room and started listing the things we had done.''

"We were amazed when we finished the list,'' added Martinez. "We didn't really know how much we had done over the years.''

The list includes: annual Christmas and Halloween parties at the hospital; building the Washtenaw County Memorial; organizing annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies and parades; educational outreach to local schools; and operating a food pantry
.
The chapter has been very successful at fund-raising because they involve everyone in the process.

The chapter gets the support of its membership and then goes out into the community. "We tell them the truth,'' says Kinzinger. "One hundred percent of the money raised goes to helping others. We depend on everyone in the county.''

The chapter wasn't always accepted in the veterans community, according to Sandie Wilson. "When we first began we weren't allowed on the County Veterans Council because we allowed incarcerated veterans to be members.''

The chapter actively promotes a positive image of Vietnam veterans through their events and the local media. It is now responsible for the county veterans' burial detail, uniting the various veterans service organizations in the area.

Kinzinger, Lillie, Wilson, and Martinez agree that the chapter's associates are the "glue that holds it all together.'' Each month associates and spouses have a luncheon. "All of our activities are built around the families,'' says Wilson. "Without the families we wouldn't have any success. The families are always there for us.''

Being named Chapter of the Year is a great honor but for the chapter it is a challenge. Doc Martinez wrote in his President's Message in the September 1999 issue of the 310 Dispatch, "How can we get complacent when there are so many challenges out there for us to meet and so many good things for us to do?''

Whether it's providing flags for area elementary schools, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the residents of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at Dawn Farm, maintaining the grounds at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or supporting the Canadian Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Windsor, Ontario, the chapter meets and redefines its challenges on a daily basis.
 

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