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

April 2000/May 2000

Chapter Profile: Chapter 172

Reflections Of The Future: Chapter 172

By Jim Doyle

In 1984, two years after being inspired by the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial inWashington, D.C., a handful of veterans in Cumberland, Maryland, came together to form Tri-State Appalachian Chapter 172.

Fourteen years later, during VVA's 20th anniversary celebration in 1998, the chapter was recognized as Chapter of the Year for fulfilling the principles and purposes of the VVA motto, "In Service to America.'' Chapter officers were presented with the award at the leadership conference in Savannah.

"I think VVA would have been hard pressed to turn us down,'' said Bruce Whitaker, a member since 1992 and currently Chapter 172's president.

In 1988, the chapter purchased the copyright to Lee Teter's now-famous print of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Reflections, for $10,000. The print depicts a businessman who, in touching The Wall, touches the hand of a fallen comrade. Other dead comrades stand in The Wall's reflection.

Teter, who is known in western Maryland for painting motorcycle tanks, approached his friend, Bill Farrell, a charter member of the chapter, and suggested the chapter buy the copyright to the print. Teter had sold the original oil painting for $2,200, and according to Whitaker, "he needed money.''

In the past dozen years, the chapter has sold over 130,000 copies of the print. Those sales generated substantial income, which was used to support veterans activities and programs. The chapter also has donated framed copies of the print to area high schools in memory of all those who served in Vietnam.

The chapter supports the Post-traumatic Stress Rehabilitation Program at the nearby Martinsburg, West Virginia, VA hospital. According to Whitaker, participation in this project has been very rewarding. 

"The program offers four classes a year dealing with coping skills and other issues involving PTSD,'' he said. "Clients have to be clean and sober to take part. About 120 veterans a year are served by it.''

"We donate $12,000 a year to the program,'' he said. "The money is used for toiletries, movies, transportation, furniture, and other equipment and services for veterans in the program. In my opinion, it's our best-spent money.''

In 1990, the chapter purchased a building in downtown Cumberland, which now serves as its headquarters. During renovation, the chapter added an elevator to make the building fully accessible.

Serving the tri-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, the chapter now has more than four hundred members. As part of its service, it provides a death benefit for each member.

"When someone dies, it takes forever to settle the life insurance claims,'' said Steve Parsons, a founding member who serves as chapter secretary. "We felt that a family needs help immediately, so we established a $1,000 death benefit for each member. The money is paid directly to the family within 24 hours of a member's death.''

Other programs supported by the chapter include providing food and money to the Western Maryland Food Bank and sponsoring endowed scholarships for veterans and their descendants at Allegany College and Frostburg State University. Chapter members ring bells for the Salvation Army at Christmas, man festival food stands that benefit such programs as neighborhood crime watches, and sponsor a summer youth basketball league.

"For a while we just wrote checks,'' says Whitaker, a former Marine who served as a machine gunner in Vietnam from November 1966 to December 1967 near Tam Ky. "Then we decided we needed to get out and do things with the community.''

Every funding request is evaluated by the chapter's finance committee, which makes recommendations to the board for action. "I'm not saying that every request gets funded,'' says Whitaker. "But every request is considered.'' 

The chapter provides free office space for ReEntry Associates, Inc., a counseling program for veterans supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program, which is open to all veterans, serves some two hundred clients annually and provides job counseling and other services, including a food bank where needy veterans can obtain food at no cost. 

"Peggy Mellotti, a friend of the chapter since its formation, ran this program in rented space for several years,'' Whitaker said. "She would scrape together the rent each month and worked wherever she could afford the space, moving from place to place. After the chapter bought a two-story building in town, we let ReEntry Associates use it for free.''

Once a railroad and mining center, the Cumberland area's economy is now dominated by a hospital and several prisons. Minimum-wage jobs predominate, according to Parsons, who works for ReEntry Associates.

"There is some light industry,'' he says. "If you make $25,000 a year, you're living well. Cumberland is a safe community, but there is a lot of need.''

To help meet that need, the chapter provides medical supplies such as wheelchairs, hospital beds, and other equipment to members and their families. Additionally, the chapter maintains a list of people who provide veterans with transportation to the Martinsburg VA Medical Center.

Chapter members also enjoy regular social gatherings. "We sponsor a steak feed,'' Parsons said. "It costs ten dollars per person and includes great food, drink, and entertainment. All the money goes to support the food bank.''

The chapter also holds a monthly social gathering for members and guests and each Friday hosts a Members-only Happy Hour at its headquarters. "It's a chance for members to get together and just have a good time,'' said Parsons, who served as the first president of both the chapter and the Maryland State Council. 

Whitaker said the highlight of his involvement with the chapter was its sponsorship of The Wall that Heals in Cumberland last October. "It was the best thing we've ever done. I don't think we fully realized how successful we had been until then,'' Whitaker said about the event, which was attended by more than 10,000 people during its three-day visit to the local community college.

"In the last couple of years, we finally have seen Vietnam veterans receive the thanks and respect they deserve,'' he said. "We received a tremendous amount of support from the community and the college.''

Vietnam veterans are big fans of pins and badges that are emblematic of their service to the nation. But for the members of Chapter 172, the highest honor is to receive a special "Grunt'' shirt from the chapter. "The only way to get one is to work for it or steal it,'' laughed Whitaker.  "A member has to participate in at least three events to get one. You can't buy it; you have to get it the old-fashioned way--you have to earn it.''

Chapter members wear their shirts when they ring bells for the Salvation Army during the Christmas season and when they provide holiday dinners for the underprivileged in the community.

There is hardly a community activity or project the chapter hasn't contributed to. In fact, the chapter's generosity extends beyond the local community. For example, the VVA chapter in Somerset, Pennsylvania, recently received a donation of $5,000. The chapter had asked Chapter 172 for help and received it without hesitation.

Young people in the area benefit from Chapter 172's sense of obligation to its friends and neighbors through its financial support of such programs as the Young Marines, Naval Sea Cadets, and the Civil Air Patrol.  

The chapter provides a free swim day at area pools and helped fund a new speech disorder clinic for the League of Crippled Children. It also provides financial assistance to support an after-prom program at local high schools. 

"Our membership is our strength,'' said Whitaker. "The diversity of our membership provides us with immense talent in the chapter. Our members get more involved every day.''

Whitaker believes the chapter's success can be traced to its committees. "My philosophy is to let the committees do their work,'' he said. "While we need to maintain oversight and control, the board should stay out of the way and let the committees do what they were empowered to do.''

Whitaker said that while the financial support the chapter provides to local projects is substantial, members don't like to talk about it all that much. "We're a behind-the-scenes kind of group, but the community knows who we are.'' In 1997, the chapter donated in excess of $80,000 to area veterans and the community.

After receiving the Chapter of the Year award in 1998, the chapter immediately commissioned a large banner which proudly declared, "We're Number One. Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter of the Year.'' The banner hung at the front of chapter headquarters and was carried in parades.

Following the Ninth National Convention in Anaheim and the naming of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Chapter 310 as 1999 VVA Chapter of the Year, Chapter 172 sent the banner to Ann Arbor for Chapter 310 to display.

"We told them we hoped they would pass the banner on to their successor as Chapter of the Year as a kind of perpetual recognition of outstanding service,'' said Whitaker. "I also told them that we planned to bring the banner back to Cumberland.''

   

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