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December 1998/January 1999

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Commit To Life:
VVA Joins The Fight Against Drugs


Proclamation from the Mayor of Bakersfield, CA.

Vietnam Veterans of America is reinvigorating Veterans Against Drugs, a program initiated by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which works with young people to stem drug use and the violence that often accompanies it. The first step in what is slated to be a national program was taken November 2, when a contingent from VVA, led by national treasurer Jack McManus, went to Bakersfield, in Kern County, Calif., to kick off a pilot project and to call on veterans to sign up for VVA's Veterans Against Drugs program.
Proclamation from the Mayor of Bakersfield, CA. Click on picture for larger view.

VVA's commitment to join community leaders, educators, and parents in the Veterans Against Drugs program is being coordinated by McManus, who also chairs the Veterans Against Drugs Steering Committee, and by National Board member Vernon Valenzuela, the chair of VVA's Minority Affairs Committee, the vice chair of the PTSD and Substance Abuse Committee, and a long-time resident of Bakersfield.

"We feel we have a unique opportunity as veterans to do something concrete to help stop young people from getting involved in a very dangerous activity," McManus said. "We hope that the pilot program we're beginning in Bakersfield will convince young people to stay away from drugs. We're looking at it as a first step in an effort to get veterans involved with young people all over the country."

Added Valenzuela: "We have the motivation. As parents and as community leaders, we are trying to save young lives from needless early death."          

McManus and Valenzuela were joined in Bakersfield by two Medal of Honor recipients, Joe Jackson and Louis Rocco, to publicize the start of VVA's Veterans Against Drugs pilot program in Kern County. Jackson, a former U.S. Air Force air commando, received the nation's highest military honor for conspicuous gallantry in action at Kham Duc in Vietnam in 1968. Rocco, a former Army warrant officer, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions northeast of Kontum in Vietnam in 1970.                                                                                  

Jackson and Rocco participated in the first part of the innovative Kern County program, in which volunteer veterans will go into schools and use their military experiences and leadership skills to speak out against drug use. The idea is that children will be especially responsive to veterans, including those who have been awarded medals for heroism. "Who's more respected than a Medal of Honor recipient?" Valenzuela noted.                                 

The program will be run with the help of the Kem County Superintendent of Schools and will be monitored closely by experts in the drug-abuse field. The veterans also will work with existing youth anti-drug programs in the county.

The pilot program, which is expected to expand across the country as early as February 1999, is similar to one begun in the mid-1980s by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Kern County was chosen as the site for the pilot program because it has experienced significant problems associated with drug use among its young people. The county, a large agricultural area, has a diverse population: 40 percent African-American, 40 percent Hispanic, 19 percent white, and one percent Asian. Because the county's main source of income depends upon agricultural activity, the community is relatively poor. Seasonal and itinerant farm workers cause the County's population of about one half million people to fluctuate with communities across the country, drug  use has been steadily on the rise.

VVA decided to support the Kern County project on a large scale. Veterans organizations and community   in the county work together in what is the Kern County Collaborative. The area also has support groups, such as shelters, youth organizations, church groups and facilities, outreach programs and welfare support centers. Realizing the infrastructure was in place but not coordinated, McManus and Valenzuela approached community leaders to consolidate efforts. Because the Kern County campaign had great potential for success, it was decided to use the region as a pilot project with the hope that what is learned there will be used throughout the nation in other Veterans Against Drugs campaigns.

"We know that no two communities are the same," McManus said, "and we realize that what might work in the Bakersfield area may not work in other communities. However, we will be closely monitoring this pilot project to see what aspects of it can be used elsewhere." As the program develops, a handbook will be written that contains recipes for successful drug-prevention programs, as well as the conditions for their success.

No matter what national programs evolve from the Bakersfield pilot, there will be benefits directly to the community. "What we are most certain about is that Kern County is a promising area to start," McManus said. "We believe that if only one life is saved, we will have been successful."

Drug use among young people has increased markedly in the county in recent years. Gang membership also is increasing, as are pregnancies among teenagers, and deaths among teens. The county has become a haven for drug dealing, primarily directed by gangs who have moved in from outside the county. Admittance to a gang requires initiation by either submission to sex for young women or the commission of a felony.

The community recently experienced a severe shock: the killing of a young man, a top athlete and student, by a drug gang member taking part in an initiation rite. The county was outraged by the brutal murder, which came at the end of a car jacking. Community meetings were held to figure out ways to fight drugs, gangs, and violence. Donations toward a reward poured in, including money from hard-pressed itinerant laborers. Even before the murder, Valenzuela had started to plan for a VVA-sponsored Veterans Against Drugs program, in cooperation with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The senseless death of the young man became the catalyst for the program's Nov. 2 kickoff.

On that day, due to the efforts of McManus and Valenzuela, proclamations were issued by the mayor of Bakersfield, Bob Price, and the chairman of the Kern County board of supervisors. A "call to action" was proclaimed, and the week of November 1-7 was declared "Veterans Against Drugs Week." The city recognized, Mayor Price said, "the many veterans who are willing to work with community-based programs and serve their country again by trying to prevent young people from entering into the use of drugs and to counsel those who are users to get them out." The Kern County Collaborative joined in to support the campaign and put all available members and assets behind it.

The Medal of Honor recipients, Joe Jackson and Louis Rocco, were on hand for the ceremonies. They then went into the communities to visit students in schools, youth organizations, and detention centers to educate and demonstrate support. They also donated their time to record public service announcements and be interviewed on television. Their theme for the county's youth was, "commit to life."

The Kern County campaign will contmue into 1999. Veterans will pay visits to each classroom in the county five times during the school year. They will conduct anti-drug classes based upon the core values of VVA: camaraderie, compassion, integrity, meaningful achievement, and advocacy. The program's goal, McManus said, "is to establish mentoring relationships between veterans and students which will last throughout the school year." There will be five regularly scheduled visits, which will take place about every two months.

"The program will focus on two main outcomes," McManus said. "Helping young people develop positive behaviors such as self-discipline, responsibility, good judgment, and the ability to get along with others, and helping them develop positive commitments to their families, schools, peers, and communities. That, of course, includes a commitment to lead healthy, drug-free lives."

VVA, under the direction of Zack Earp, who chairs the national Education Subcommittee, has drawn up a detailed, step-by-step manual that provides specific instructions for veteran volunteers as they prepare to go into the schools and talk to students. The manual also contains a lesson outline for each of the five classroom visits that integrates VVA's core values.

"We hope that the veterans who volunteer will stick with the program until their students have graduated," McManus said. "We plan to present awards to all the students who successfully take part in the program."



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