One Man's War
New VVA Prez Rowan Fights to Defend, Extend Veterans Rights
BY PETER MCDERMOTT
REPRINTED FROM THE IRISH ECHO
“We’re the old guys now,” said John
Rowan of those who served during the Vietnam War.
They were once a misunderstood and
rebellious generation, but their pioneering work on many issues
has earned the respect of the soldiers now serving.
“When you talk to fellas and girls
at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], they’re very appreciative of
the stuff we’ve done,” said Rowan, who has just turned 60. “They
even know of my organization, which surprises me.”
Nonetheless, the 52,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America, which
in August elected Rowan national president, has been around as a
force for 25 years and is the only congressionally chartered body
dedicated to those who served in the military during the war in
It has more than 600 active
chapters nationwide and a staff of 38 at its Silver Spring, Md.,
headquarters. It also has hundreds of service representatives,
many of them volunteers, who inform veterans of their rights and
help them make claims if they are suffering from illnesses related
to their service.
The organization’s motto, “Never
again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” hints at
the troubled times that gave birth to it.
Rowan said Vietnam veterans got
rather different treatment from the government when they came home
than those who’d served in World War II.
“You had a combination of
federalism and socialism of sorts with Franklin Roosevelt who
wanted the government to do something,” he said, explaining
national policy during and after the war.
Low-interest business loans,
no-down-payment loans for housing, subsidies that facilitated the
move from city tenements to suburbs and, most famously, the GI
Bill, which made college education available, raised up large
numbers of the 16 million veterans.
“They created a whole middle class
out of nothing,” Rowan said.
A boom economy fueled by the
rebuilding of Europe and Japan and the growth of the consumer
society greatly helped, providing good jobs for people who’d been
unemployed before they joined up.
The leadership of the previous
generation was also a crucial factor. “The World War I veterans
didn’t want to see what had happened to them happen to the folks
coming back from World War II,” Rowan said.
The American Legion, he said, can
claim the credit for initiatives like the GI Bill.
Things had changed markedly,
though, by the time Rowan and his peers returned to civilian life.
“The GI Bill had been significantly
watered down, and it wasn’t a great period to be looking for a
job,” he said.
A generation gap opened up between
the crew-cutted ex-servicemen who’d come back to a good job, a
car, and a home in the suburbs and the “whacked-out, long-haired,
pot-smoking, anti-war, hippie freak veterans,” said Rowan.
“The World War II veterans didn’t
understand PTSD [Post-traumatic Stress Disorder] until much
later,” he recalled. “They certainly didn’t understand when we
started to talk about Agent Orange and what that meant. It’s much
more well-known now.
“The Veterans Administration fought
these things tooth and nail; so did some of the older guys,” he
Not that the World War II
servicemen hadn’t had problems. “They didn’t talk about the guys
who drank themselves to death,” he said.
They didn’t generally mention the
nightmares, either. He pointed to the example of Twilight Zone
writer Rod Sterling, a paratrooper in New Guinea during World War
II, who started writing stories because he couldn’t sleep at night
after he’d returned from war.
“But we were upfront about it,” the
6-foot-4 Rowan said, pointing out that PTSD was first known as
The political backdrop was markedly
When Rowan got back to his native
Queens in New York City, the “country was going to hell in a
hand-basket,” he said.
He’d gotten a compassionate
discharge in December 1967 as the only child of a man dying of
The first month of 1968—by which
time Rowan was already back at his old job at AT&T—saw the Tet
Offensive. And bad news kept coming for Americans throughout 1968:
the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy,
race riots and then antiwar riots. And drugs were everywhere, he
The 1960s were really the late ’60
and early ’70s, in Rowan’s view. And he was in the middle of it
He joined Vietnam Veterans Against
the War. “They were a bunch of people with good intentions that
were trashed by the left and the right,” he said. “The FBI
infiltrated them and every crazy left-wing group wanted to co-opt
them. They got torn apart. It was sad because they had good things
VVAW was among the first to refer
to the problems that veterans were having with alcohol and drug
abuse, as well as post-traumatic stress, and Rowan can trace his
activism on health issues to those years. Meanwhile he quit his
job and began college in the summer of 1969. He ultimately got a
BA in political science at Queens College and a Masters degree in
urban affairs at Hunter College.
He’d made an earlier attempt at
college, not long after his 1963 graduation from high school. He
lasted one semester.
“I screwed it up. I hated it,” he
said. Rowan grew up in an Irish-American family in Elmhurst. His
father’s parents, whom he never knew, were both from Ballinrobe,
County Mayo. But his American-born, County Limerick-educated
maternal grandmother, who lived until she was 96 in 1978 (the same
year his mother died), provided him with the strongest connections
to his heritage and a network of cousins in Australia and Ireland.
Rowan’s father graduated law school
in 1936 but never practiced. “It wasn’t a good time to find a job
as a lawyer,” his son said. He worked at various jobs before
getting work with the City of New York.
Rowan, Sr., though an unlikely
recruit with poor eyesight and other health problems, was drafted
into the military during World War II, serving for a couple years
as a dental technician in Texas.
When it was his turn, his son
volunteered for the Air Force in 1965, rather than be drafted.
Because of his phone company experience, Rowan thought he might be
trained in electronics. Instead, he was selected for language
school in Texas. He was first taught Indonesian, but when the
Indonesian military took over and liquidated the communist
movement in that country, the school cross-trained everybody in
“I wasn’t a hot linguist, but some
of the people I worked with were incredible—they sucked up
languages like sponges,” he remembered.
In the end, Rowan didn’t use
Vietnamese much. Serving with the 6990th Security Squadron, he got
a position on a plane typing in classified material others had
“We worked with SAC [Strategic Air
Command] helping them direct bombing missions,” said Rowan, who
lives with his wife, Mariann, in Middle Village, not far from his
“We were able to communicate to
them that they were being tracked,” he said of his flying missions
over North Vietnam.
His overseas experience was
confined to the last eight months of his military career. Some of
it was spent in country at Da Nang, in Vietnam, the rest at Kadena
Air Base in Okinawa, from where crews made 18-hour missions.
The trip had lasting effects on his
health. He has diabetes, the high rates of which among Vietnam
veterans have been traced to exposure to Agent Orange.
“At Da Nang, it was 112 degrees. We
showered three times a day in polluted water,” he said.
He was troubled by physical
ailments soon after getting back. However, some of his comrades
clearly had developed psychiatric problems.
“I knew more people who killed
themselves than people who died in the war,” he said.
When VVA emerged as a fully fledged
advocacy group, it was cautious about the legacy of substance
abuse. “There are social aspects, but we’re pretty much against
bars,” he said. Indeed, a local chapter has to get permission from
the national organization to have a bar.
Rowan added to his activist
experience when, after graduation, he got a job in the district
office of Representative Ben Rosenthal, a New York member of
That two-year stint was followed by
jobs as an investigator with the City Council and later with the
comptroller’s office, from which he retired recently.
The former city worker said that
the 720 delegates who gathered in August for the VVA National
Convention in Reno, Nev., didn’t elect a figurehead.
“I’m a CEO. Although I do a lot of
my work at home in front of the computer,” said Rowan, who married
18 years ago and has two stepsons, aged 31 and 28. Both are
electricians and members of Local 3 IBEW.
“Our biggest battles right now are
with Congress over health care issues and the continuation of the
VA health care program,” he said. “And reaching out to veterans,
letting them know that they may be entitled to compensation if
they have certain diseases.
“They’ve been telling us that we
are living longer. But I know a lot of people who are dying of
cancers and things,” he said. “Those who served in Vietnam are
dying at a higher rate than their peers. And we think it has a lot
to do with exposure to Agent Orange.
“Half a dozen of the 50-strong New
York State Council of VVA have been diagnosed with prostate cancer
in the past year,” he said, adding that stress is a major
contributory factor in certain diseases.
The VVA president said that when
they got home the veterans “got on with their lives and scraped
by” despite their problems—though Hollywood is fond of portraying
them as either crazed right-wing and Rambo-style nuts or addled,
Rowan added that as a group Vietnam
service personnel were more representative of the American
working-class and middle-class mainstream than were the veterans
of World War II.
“There were very few people like
John Kerry, who came out of a more upper-class background, running
off out of Harvard or Yale to the Navy or Army,” he said.
These days, Rowan said, the general
public doesn’t buy the movie caricatures, but rather believes:
“They did their duty, and got screwed—the government didn’t treat
them very well.”
The image has softened for another reason. “Now we’re old tubby
guys who look more like Santa Claus than Rambo,” he said.
This article appeared in the September 28/October 4, 2005,
issue of the Irish Echo. It is reprinted here with