The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

March/April 2003
 
 
 

"They're All Real Good Men"
VVA's New Pesence In Alaska

BY JIM BELSHAW

That Vietnam veterans are not joiners is more an article of faith than a truism borne out by testimonial and anecdote. Coming home to a hostile country, often rejected by those opposed to the war and by the very veterans organizations that purported to give the returning warriors comfort, many Vietnam veterans retreated into themselves. If the desire to be left alone was to be underscored, no better place suggested itself than Alaska, a geographical and philosophical state that bifurcates the world neatly - Alaska and everywhere else.

It is easy to lose yourself in Alaska's vast spaces, easy to disappear into the bush where being left alone was a given. Now Alaska confronts the conventional wisdom. Vietnam veterans are joining. In less than a year, Alaska has gone from no VVA chapters to four, with a fifth to come soon, and a sixth--in a town named Hanoi, no less - to follow that.

The first chapter was Mat-Su 891, located in Wasilla, the hub of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, 24,000 square miles, the size of West Virginia. It began with ``a couple of guys sitting around the Vet Center up here,'' Interim State Council President Bob Moore said. Then it took a lot of work.

Chapter historian Bill Kelder joined reluctantly. He hadn't joined anything since returning from Vietnam in 1971, and initially the invitation to change that history held little promise. But two veterans he trusted talked him into it. He went to the first meeting thinking it could do no harm. It was only one meeting. If he didn't like it, he didn't have to come back.

"Twenty-five of us got together, looked over the charter VVA national provides, and formed 891," Kelder said. "At a Veterans Day function, we got a lot of newspaper coverage from a local paper prior to the event, and suddenly we started hearing from a lot more vets. Plus we'd put up a lot of fliers on bulletin boards, and a radio station did public service announcements, too. Vets started coming out of the woodwork."

Bob Moore, retired and disabled, a veteran of multiple tours in Vietnam with the Army, bought a new truck. He hit the road to look for veterans who might want to join. Hitting the road in Alaska is no small undertaking. He soon logged 40,000 miles on that truck.

Moore said he had doors slammed in his face; he was called a traitor; he was called a liar and a fraud. But he kept driving and knocking on the doors. "It's been hard, but it's been rewarding," he said.

Other men responded. Why they did remains elusive. "I wish I could give a good answer," Moore said. "The guys up here are unique. Most of them are hardened combat veterans. They saw the worst part of the war, and it seems Alaska just draws that kind of person. They're multiple-tour veterans; they're grunts; almost all of them have Purple Hearts; many suffer from severe cases of PTSD. They're unique in the sense that they're all real good men. We don't have a jerk up here. We just don't have one. I wish I had a real good, clear answer about why they've responded to us, but I don't have one."

They look now for veterans wherever they go. Word of mouth has produced chapter members, but it takes more than just that. Kelder said he can spot Vietnam veterans. There's something about them that sets off the radar, and he will approach them, introduce himself, explain VVA, and invite them to a meeting.

Eight-Niner-One meets in the basement of a Pentecostal church. The pastor was a door gunner. He was a preacher back then, too.

"I wish everybody in VVA could come to our meetings so they could see these men up here," Moore said. "They have no hidden agenda. They have no aspirations one way or the other in the group. They're all leaders. It's a fraternity and it's a good one."

He and Kelder agree that age plays a substantial role in the response of veterans. All have begun to look back, to reassess their pasts. Kelder and Moore note that many PTSD symptoms don't reveal themselves until later in life.

"A lot of guys have reached that point in life where they're looking back, not forward," Kelder said. "I don't think that part is limited to veterans, but they're realizing that because of PTSD or their reluctance to talk about Vietnam or not having anyone to talk to about it that they've left a kind of swath of destruction behind themselves."

They emphasize the importance of being with others who understand the subtleties in
conversations about the Vietnam War, men who shared the experience and know how to talk about it.

"It helps us to open up," Kelder said. "A lot of these guys have been through the VA maze, and they can help guys who haven't gone through it. I think that's part of it. They need to talk. They haven't for decades. There's a consensus, but no formal discussion. It's like, 'I'm glad I did this. It helps.' We don't do a hard sell. We just let them know we exist. We point out to them that we have a Vet Center with counselors. We're still encouraging people to come in and join and form chapters in their area, and it takes a while. But they're realizing that the camaraderie is beneficial."

When some of them come in for a meeting, it is a singular event. "We've got guys who live out in the bush and don't come out except when there's a VVA meeting," Moore said. "And when I say out in the bush, I mean way back in the woods.''

Kelder came to Alaska in the Air Force before he went to Vietnam. It insinuated itself into him, and he found he couldn't let it go.

"I feel more useful here than any place I have ever lived," he said. "I feel more alive here. I think it's because we all kind of tend to withdraw, and this is about as far as you can. I suspect that's it. Some of our members have been talking about how Wasilla is getting crowded. We don't even have 20,000 people in the city limits. But guys are talking about moving farther out."

Kelder offers a mysterious comparison that he concedes seems odd at first.

"This may sound a little strange," Kelder said, "ut in the summer, when the snow withdraws from the mountains, it's pretty lush. We were talking about this a few months ago. There are so many shades of green up here in the summer, and Bob Moore said, 'Kind of looks like Vietnam, doesn't it?' There was something to that. Of course, it's not tropical, but at the same time, there was something to it."

They intend to reach out to Native American communities, where they expect to find substantial numbers of Vietnam veterans. The chapter forming in Hanoi results from their affiliation with the Vietnam Friendship Village Project, whose aim is to heal the wounds of the war by bringing together veterans and citizens to build a residential facility for orphans, the elderly, and the disabled. In Vietnam, they are working to establish a relationship with Vietnamese veterans.

Chapter 891 has been put in charge of Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies in the Mat-Su Valley, an important undertaking that Moore said consumes the entire year.

"It's a big thing in this little community," he said. "Everybody turns out for it. The respect and turnout for the veteran here is like no other place I've ever seen."

   

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