The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
August/September 2004

A Slam-Dunk Leadership Conference


They came in record numbers the first week of August to the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Nashville for the 2004 VVA National Leadership Conference. They saw (and heard from) dozens of Vietnam veterans' advocates and other speakers and special guests during four days of seminars, talks, and other events. They conquered minor hotel glitches and came away infinitely better prepared to go back to their chapters and communities across the nation as more effective, better prepared Vietnam veteran leaders. 

"As far as I'm concerned, it was a slam-dunk conference," said VVA CFO Joe Sternberg, who helped plan and coordinate the event. "We had 428 members register, more than a hundred more than at the last Leadership Conference in Tucson in 2002. We had huge numbers at several of the seminarsincluding more than a hundred at three different ones. And the feedback for the entire event was overwhelmingly positive. When you get more than 90 percent of the people who attended telling you that the conference was either 'great' or 'good,' you know you're doing something right." 

Calling the conference's success "a team effort," VVA President Tom Corey said: "We couldn't have pulled this off without excellent planning and follow-through from many people. That includes the Board of Directors, the Conference Planning Committee, the VVA event planning staff, the Tennessee State Council, and everyone at the national office. And we can't forget the national committee chairs who arranged excellent seminars and brought in a raft of outstanding presenters." 

The conference kicked off with a bang on Wednesday morning, August 4, with a fast-paced and moving Opening Ceremonies coordinated by Wes Guidry, VVA's events coordinator. Following VVA National Chaplain Father Philip Salois's invocation, the house lights dimmed and Nashville recording artists the Bakers took the stage. The mother-daughter combo welcomed the packed hall of VVA members, AVVA members (who were holding their biennial meeting), and guests to Nashville with a stirring acoustic version of "Travelin' Soldier," the Bruce Robison song about a young woman whose boyfriend goes off to fight in Vietnam. Ralph Land, a local VVA member and longtime Nashville studio musician, accompanied the Bakers on drums. 

A color guard of young 101st Airborne troopers from nearby Fort Campbell, Kentucky, presented the colors, the Bakers sang the National Anthem Nashville-style, and local Boy Scout David Mullins led the Pledge of Allegiance. Active-duty Army sergeant Ray Gutierrez, a former singer with the U.S. Army band who had orders to ship out to Iraq, sang Toby Keith's "American Soldier" to a rousing ovation. Members of the Tennessee State Council presented the service flags and young Mullins solemnly presented the POW/MIA banner. 

Tom Corey's welcoming remarks included introducing Paul "Buddy" Bucha and Gary Beikirch, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipients who later spoke at seminars. Ed Vick, a one-time Navy River Patrol Boat commander in Vietnam who recently retired as CEO of the huge marketing firm Young and Rubicam, gave an uplifting and well-received keynote speech. Vick exhorted everyone in the room to get motivated and to help get out the vote in November. The ceremonies ended with remarks from U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. A longtime VVA supporter, the former Pennsylvania governor was the first enlisted man who served in the Vietnam War to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Conference attendees then went off to attend the first tier of seminars. Over the next three and a half days, they had the chance to take part in dozens of seminars on topics as varied as "Duties of Boards of Directors," "How to Use Disciplinary Procedure," "Vote for America 2004!," "Agent Orange 2004 Update," and "Fund Raising." In addition to the seminars were screenings of the award-winning documentary, In the Shadow of the Blade, along with two other video presentations--a Louisiana high-school power point honoring veterans and an Idaho college-student salute to the Moving Wall. 

A conference highlight was Friday's Awards Luncheon which included Deputy VA Secretary Gordon Mansfield's Keynote Speech. Twyla Tharp, one of the nation's most honored choreographers, who created the Vietnam-themed smash Broadway musical "Movin' Out." Tharp, and who received a VVA President's Award for Excellence in the Arts, told the cheering crowd she had purchased that morning a hundred VVA pins and planned to present one to every member of the show's cast and crew. "We're starting a "renegade" VVA chapter in New York," she said, and invited all Vietnam veterans who see the show to come backstage afterwards and meet the cast. 

The other President's Awards went to Patrick and Cheryl Fries, the husband-and-wife team responsible for the stirring documentary, In the Shadow of the Blade, and George Jones, the veteran country music singer, who was honored for recording the song, "50,000 Names." The Fries had introduced their film at two showings the day before and had taken questions from VVA members following the showings. Jones, who was on the road and could not attend the conference, sent in a videotaped acceptance speech and a framed copy of the "50,000 Names" CD.

The 2004 VVA awards went to: 

  • Chapter 82 in Nassau County, New York, Chapter of the Year

  • LZ 141, Chapter 142, Monroe, Michigan, Newsletter of the Year (under 200 members)

  • Between the Lines, Chapter 20, Rochester, New York, Newsletter of the Year (over 200 members)

  • David Lee Oates, Chapter 284, Macomb Correctional Facility, New Haven, Michigan, Incarcerated Member of the Year.

The record crowd of conference attendees took advantage of downtown Nashville's wide array of restaurants and nightspots within walking distance of the hotel. That included the string of country music honky tonks on Broadway, where every night during the Leadership Conference VVA members and friends could be found taking in the sounds of Music City U.S.A. "The atmosphere and the music was great," said longtime VVA member Bob Maras, who chairs the Veterans Initiative Task Force. "And it wasn't just country. You had blues and rock and roll, too. Something for every taste. Rock on."


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