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September/october 2008

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BY MARC LEEPSON, photos by Michael Keating

When you attend a VVA National Leadership Conference, you have to make choices. And that was certainly true with this year’s LC, which took place July 16-19 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. With many of the three dozen seminars offered concurrently over four days, conferees had to prioritize. On Thursday morning at 9:00, for example, Jim Lynch, the President of Chapter 905 in Porter County, Indiana, decided to take in the two-part Heath Care Issues seminar. It dealt with hepatitis C and Agent Orange and birth defects. Lynch, a veteran of eight VVA Conventions and Leadership Conferences, is mighty glad he chose that session.

“One of our members has a son in his forties who has several birth defects,” Lynch said later that day, “and he wants to do an Agent Orange claim. I learned exactly how to do that on line at the second part of that seminar,” which was presented by Betty Mekdeci of the American Birth Defects Registry. “I am so excited,” Lynch said. “I can’t wait to get home and tell him. Getting that information was worth the whole trip here for me.”

Lynch’s experience mirrored those of many of the three-hundred-plus VVA members who took part in the Leadership Conference and who took in as many seminars as they could pack into their busy schedules. That was the case even if what was on the agenda—how to be an effective board of directors member, for example, or how to recruit and retain new members, or how to be a grassroots lobbyist—covered material already familiar to many members.

“It’s important for every chapter to come here,” said Tim Driscoll, the president of Washtenaw County, Michigan, Chapter 310. “We have to continue to learn how important the details are in our advocacy work. We are getting older and it’s crucial that those who can still do a lot come here and get re-energized. We’ve made a commitment to our chapter members. We have to keep those promises.”

Or as Ned Foote, the New York State Council President and a veteran Leadership Conference goer, put it: “No matter how many seminars you go to, you always learn something.”

An added bonus this year: the city of Greenville, in the Northwestern South Carolina Piedmont, warmly welcomed VVA, along with the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, which was having its biennial Convention, and the Veterans of Modern Warfare, which was having its Founding Convention in conjunction with the LC. Many of the merchants and eateries along bustling Main Street just outside the hotel proudly posted signs welcoming VVA; some offered discounts; just about all offered friendly greetings.

“Just walking outside the hotel was an adventure in good eating, good people, and good fun,” VVA President John Rowan remarked during the Closing Ceremonies. “It’s been a real pleasure to be here.”

The Conference kicked off Wednesday morning with stirring Opening Ceremonies that featured a strak Color Guard from Chapter 172 in Cumberland, Maryland; a rousing National Anthem and “God Bless America” sung by Michelle DellaFave and Lindsay Bloom; greetings from South Carolina State Council President Avery Taylor, AVVA President Mary Miller, and VMW President Julie Mock; Rowan’s welcoming remarks (in which he dubbed the event “VVA’s Summer School”); and an inspiring Keynote from motivational speaker Bridget Cooper, who went on to lead a series of seminars during the next three days.

The seminars themselves began right after the opening ceremonies and continued until noontime on Saturday. Nearly all were jam packed with conference attendees. All offered expert advice on myriad aspects of veteran advocacy. At the 9:00 a.m. Thursday seminar on grassroots advocacy, for example, Pat Welch, a VVA Board member who is vice chair of the Government Relations Committee, and Tom Insley, who also co-vice chairs the committee and is a member of the Maryland State Veterans Commission, brought their combined decades of experience to a large group of VVA members from around the country.

In 90 minutes of lively give and take, Welch and Insley engaged audience members, most of whom were experienced in veterans’ advocacy work on their local and state levels. VVA members from Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, New York, Indiana, Arizona, Michigan, Illinois, and elsewhere shared valuable lobbying tips, ranging from what to wear when you visit a legislator’s office to what to say when you get there.

After that, at a 10:45 seminar on PTSD, Tom Berger, who chairs VVA’s national PTSD/Substance Abuse Committee, introduced “a good friend of VVA,” Dr. Matt Friedman, one of the nation’s top PTSD experts. Dr. Friedman, who heads the VA’s National Center for PTSD and teaches at Dartmouth Medical School, praised the full house of VVA members.

“Thanks to your support we hope to continue” working on the full range of PTSD issues, he said. He went on to present a detailed picture of what the National Center does and spoke a good deal about emotional readjustment issues among the newest generation of veterans.

“Everyone, to some degree, is having some re-entry issues,” Dr. Friedman said. “Although there are going to be problems, most will come through to the other side, but significant numbers won’t—about 15 percent.”

The Conference’s concluding event, the Saturday night Awards Banquet and Dance, drew a big crowd of VVA, AVVA, and VMW members. They took note of VVA’s 30th anniversary and showed their appreciation for this year’s award winners—before rocking the night away to Endless Summer, the Indiana band that was a big hit at the National Convention in Springfield, Illinois, last year.

Craig Venter, the pioneering research scientist who decoded the humane genome and who served as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, received the first VVA Excellence in the Sciences Award. Bobbie Keith and Chris Noel, who entertained the troops in Vietnam on TV (“Bobbie the Weather Girl”) and radio (“A Date With Chris”), received VVA President’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts. And former Marine Bill Ehrhart, the award-winning poet, memoirist, and teacher, took home the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award.

That award, Ehrhart said, echoing Venter’s comments, “means more to me that any other honor I’ve ever received because it comes from my peers—my brothers and sisters—my fellow veterans.”



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