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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.''