"They're All Real Good
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
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,"
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
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
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
"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
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."