The year was 1982. It was 9 years after the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. It was 7 years after the fall of Saigon. The Vietnam War was over and had been over for a long time. American veterans had returned home from a controversial war which most Americans wanted to put behind them.
Those who were directly involved in the war or who had served in the armed forces during the period or era, were getting on with their lives. They returned to the U.S. and quietly slipped into the mainstream of American life. They started their careers, established themselves in their professions, went to school, got married, had kids, built their lives - always with the experience and memory of Vietnam and the military with them.
There was something missing, however, something was unresolved. America had become or seemingly had become indifferent or apathetic to its immediate past. President Gerald R. Ford asked the American public to put Vietnam behind them and forget it. The injunction was most effective. Americans did put the war behind, out of sight, out of memory. Americans as a nation, did a healthy and necessary thing to help themselves heal from a grievous wound which broke our nation’s heart. With the memory of the war expunged another result occurred. The veterans the men and women who served their nation during that period - seemed to be forgotten.
The Central New York area was well represented in Vietnam and in all the services during the era. While the exact number is unknown, there are upwards from 12,000 Vietnam veterans living today in Onondaga County. A few of those veterans gathered together in late 1982 and early 1983 to form a chapter of a larger national Veteran’s organization which was emerging. That new national Veteran’s organization was called the Vietnam Veterans of America. The local chapter, encompassing the geographical area of seven central New York counties was to become the Central New York Chapter #103, Vietnam Veterans of America.
The Vietnam Veterans of America was on its way to becoming the largest national service organization exclusively devoted to Vietnam Veterans, and the only Congressionally chartered Vietnam Veterans organization. The organization’s goal was to foster, encourage, and promote the condition of the Vietnam Veteran.
Chapter #103 became an important part of the national organization. Chapter #103 was to become a dynamic force in the local Veteran’s community and its influence was to be felt at the state and national level.
All of the above was to come about through the efforts of its members; the local men and women who served their country when called and continued to serve, each in their way, each in their capacity, and each according to their interest.
Who are these individuals who comprise Chapter #103? The members of VVA #103 would come from all walks of life, every ethnic and religious group, whose active military service represented all branches of the service during all phases of the era; 1959 to 1975. All members had two things in common; service to the country during the Vietnam era, and a desire to better the emotional, psychological, and physical condition of the Vietnam Veterans and his/her family.
How VVA #103 has arrived at that position is the subject of this report.
When that small group of Vietnam Veterans first gathered to form an organized chapter of Vietnam Veterans they started to realize that their agenda was going to be a full one. Some of the items on their list of things to do, they decided. As time passed and they got down to organizing they found that some items would be decided for them. Some things they had to figure out were common organizational needs: where and when to meet, goals to be accomplished, how to inform other widely dispersed Vietnam era Veterans (of unknown numbers) that a chapter was organizing and who exactly these Veterans were.
The question of "who" was going to be asked to join seemed simple at first. After all, this was a group of Vietnam era Veterans. When those initial meetings took place, it was soon evident that the diversity of the Vietnam era Veteran was staggering not only in terms of who they were but what they had become. Their problems (during service and subsequently) were becoming known. How to "organize" a chapter to meet and maintain their interest--that was a daunting assignment. A common thread which drew interested Veterans into an organization was service in Vietnam. The group of founders understood that as a strength when many in the surrounding community thought of service in Vietnam quite to the contrary. This was an organization that would acknowledge and develop itself by perceiving its service in Vietnam with pride. This was a key to understanding how dynamic this organization would become.
The experience of Vietnam had a dramatic effect on the nation’s life and an even more dramatic effect on the individuals directly involved. The individuals who were to evolve from Vietnam Veteran to the Vietnam Veterans of America were first and foremost team players. They demonstrated resourcefulness, ingenuity, humor, dedication, but above all - compassion for each other and to the Vietnam Veteran in general. Armed with these characteristics, and the bond of service to country, they were on their way to becoming a recognized and respected influence.
The agenda was large. The organization was sketchy, but the spirit was willing, if anything, VVA #103 tried to do too much with the resources available -- but objectives were reached. At times there were projects that were less than successful, some were partially successful, some were wildly successful. But each project taught the fledgling Veterans organization something about itself as an organization and something to its participating members; they were more than capable and they were on the right track.
The first three years were challenging but the bond of unity that was created with that seminal group of Vietnam Veterans grew with the organization and has become a cornerstone upon which success after success has resulted.
In the years 1983 to 1986, the organization of Chapter #103 was established and refined. Under the leadership of Mike VanDerMark and Vince Larkin, the first two Presidents of the chapter, the organization took hold in the community. Parallel to the development of the chapter, the Veterans themselves were emerging. After years of silence, Vietnam Veterans were coming forth and publicly acknowledging their service with pride and VVA #103 was the theater of that acknowledgement.
Chapter #103 changed its meeting places and finally centered its meeting activities at the War Memorial. As with everything else it had positive and negative points. It was centrally located and the space was free. Some Veterans, however, expressed concern about the association with the War Memorial, and the connotation for themselves with being identified with a memorial to war. Cognizant of that concern and aware of a need to "have its own place," a search was initiated to find an alternate, permanent site which VVA #103 could call its own and consider it a "home."
From an organizational standpoint, the local chapter followed the Constitution of the Vietnam Veterans of America. After receiving its charter form the national organization, the chapter set out to grow. Ideas to increase the membership of the chapter, gain visibility and acceptance in both the Veteran’s community and the community at large were tried. At times it seemed discouraging to all involved. But with persistence, the core membership hammered out an agenda. The Central New York area and other major Veteran’s organizations began to take notice because this group of Vietnam Veterans were making an impact. They were becoming an influence. The impact, the influence was positive and the community was warm and receptive.
As a result of those efforts to establish credibility and acceptance, stereotypes of the Vietnam Veteran were beginning to change. Chapter #103 correctly assessed the needs and concerns of the Veterans community. Chapter #103 established its newsletter, "At Ease," which would convey to the membership and the community at large, information about what the chapter was doing and what it was about.
The numbers of Vietnam era Veterans joining the chapter increased. The chapter created a color guard to be present at various functions and ceremonies in the community. The appearance of the color guard is impressive in any context. This visible sign of pride in service is highly sought after. The award winning color guard carries ten flags, to include the Canadian national colors representing Canadian citizens who came to the United States and served in Vietnam. The uniform of color guard is camouflage which represented the nature of the Vietnam War.color guardguard is very warmly received in Onondaga County.
The chapter also began to take a more directed and active part in community service. As time went by, community service became more and more important because the chapter saw that Vietnam era Veterans were in need of services that the community offered. The chapter also noted that service to the community was going to be the key which would make chapter #103 a positive influence on and in the community which would in turn improve the environment in which the Vietnam Veteran would live. Also, the satisfaction occurred from helpful, positive service to the community would keep the organization viable to its members.
A key turning point in the life of the chapter was the dedication of the Korea-Vietnam Memorial (KVM) in downtown Syracuse in November 1984. Several members of Chapter #103, Gordie Lane, "Pappy" Patchin, Norm Mordue, Joe Miller, David Holihan, Bryan Hedges, Bill Burns, John Bulter, and Larry Fanto conceived of a memorial to honor those who served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The project took several years. But when it was dedicated, a large gathering attended the ceremony. The Chapter cotor guard was present. The news media were present.
Suddenly there was recognition of the Korean War and Vietnam era Veteran even though the KVM was not sponsored by the Chapter; individuals who were members of the chapter were directly responsible for the completion of this most necessary memorial. An association made by Veterans who were looking for the chapter and membership began to increase. On Memorial Day in 1985, VVA #103 posted an Honor Guard at the KVM for the entire day. In September of 1985, Chapter #103 had a candle vigil on POW/MIA Day (September 19), 2,400 candles were lit in honor of those who were reported Prisoners of War or Missing in Action and the names of 249 individuals reported killed in action ‘from Onondaga County were read publicly. Again, Veterans in the community began to take notice of this organization because it had identified a need and was answering the need without reservation. On Christmas Day, 1985, a service was held at the KVM in honor of those still missing or held prisoner and in 1986 a mass was said at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in honor of those reported missing. All of these events brought to the public’s attention an awareness of an issue that is important for the Vietnam Veterans and to the community at large-- accountability for those who served. Chapter #103 feels an obligation to inform the public that questions still remain and that it is in the interest of everyone that the issues of government and societal responsibility for action taken on behalf of the citizenry not be forgotten or be minimized.
After 1985, Chapter #103 became even more involved with community service. In 1985 and 1986, VVA #103 helped sponsor Exceptional Children’s T’Ball League, contributed funds for Muscular Dystrophy through participation in its annual Bed Race, was instrumental in having the POW/MIA flag flown on County office buildings, assisted in the Refugee Resettlement Program, exhibited a critically acclaimed display at the New York State Fair, and took a giant step forward, by conceiving of, establishing, an maintaining a Call-A-Vet Hotline and an Agent Orange Hotline.
In addition to business, the Chapter celebrated, it had a Christmas party for the children of members, picnics and parties for members. Chapter #103 has its own TET Party - partly to commemorate the TET Offensive of 1968 - but mostly to have one really great time. Sometimes formal, sometimes informal - VVA #103 can have a good time -- at the drop of a hat. A lot of the party atmosphere is a celebration and recognition of a survival mentality. It works. Another event that has become singularly important is the annual Installation and Awards Dinner, usually held in May. The event involves the installation of new officers for the coming year and the recognition of those who have given outstanding service to the Chapter in the past year. The Chapter has established a series of awards to outstanding members or contributors to the works of the chapter.
The awards are Veteran Supporter of the Year, Corporate Supporter of the Year, Citizenship Award, Associate Member Award, "Grunt" Award, Past-President’s Award, President’s Award, and the highest award of all, the Vietnam Veteran of the Year Award. The first Installation Dinner had as its main speaker Bobby Muller, the National President, Vietnam Veterans of America.
The Installation Dinner was noteworthy also because it demonstrated that this Chapter had reached another key point in its evolution. The point was made when someone remarked that there was a notable absence of camouflage. Instead, the attire was suit coats and ties. Chapter #103 had passed from one stage to another. In a sense the vestiges of combat had passed and in a sense, the energy that the camouflage represented was being directed in positive ways toward the improvement of the Vietnam Veterans environment. Through involvement in the Chapter and its activities, members found ways to bring into focus their experiences in the military. Many members find their association most beneficial and it allows them to integrate their previous experiences with their present life.
The Chapter met on the third Thursday of each month and in an effort to invite prospective members into the organization and retain old members, guest speakers are asked to give presentations about topics which may be useful and relevant to the membership. The array of subjects is vast. The presenters are recognized experts in their respective fields. The subjects range from PTSD to VA Home Loans and almost everything in between.
Other reasons why Chapter #103 was meeting with success in its activities were many. Team play was emphasized. It was abundantly clear that the nature and scope of activities could no longer be handled by individuals. Successful resolution of the project could only be guaranteed if the activity was supported by the whole Chapter and participated in by sufficient numbers of members- so that no one member had the burden of a project on his/her shoulders. Another element which insured success was the development of a strong committee system whereby each committee chairperson would develop the concept of a project, present to the Board of Directors, and, if approved, carry it through to conclusion. The committee system also allowed the Chapter to focus on particular needs as presented by the membership. Concentrating efforts on particular areas allowed the Chapter to utilize its resources to best advantage.In May, 1987, a new President was installed and the Chapter went through a Period of transition. 1987-1988 was a pivotal year where by Chapter #103 became prominent at both the State and National level.
A new seriousness prevailed in the Chapter. In August, 1987, the Chapter moved its meeting place to the American Legion Post 188, Liverpool. The Chapter focused on three issues that were to set the tone to the present day. The areas of focus were the establishment and development of a Veteran’s Outreach Center (VOC), maintenance of public attention to the Prisoner of War/Missing In Action (POW/MIA) issue, and the establishment of a link between #103’s Call-A-Vet Program, the Vet Center, and the VA Medical Center.
In addition to the above, the Chapter maintained all its usual functions, (both formal and informal) and hosted a meeting of the New York State Vietnam Veteran’s Council.
The amount of work that the Chapter expended pursuant to each of the focus goals was simply unbelievable. The issue of the VOC took the Chapter into the corridors of power and politics. Members of the Chapter spent endless hours making contacts, sorting out issues, convincing those in office of the need for such a center. The spirit of the Vietnam Veteran was never dimmed although at times doors were closed, dogged persistence prevailed and those with power listened and were persuaded of the intent and intended results. It was well into 1989 when work on the VOC came to fruition and those at all levels of government observed the work and drive and results of this small and dedicated group of individuals. The impression made by VVA #103 was long lasting and positive.
Relations between VVA #103, the Vet Center and the VA Medical Center had been delicate for a number of years. The Veteran is entitled to benefits and services from the Veterans Administration and its component agencies. Many Vietnam era Veterans had found the services rendered were less than adequate and had developed a perception that was negative. The Veterans felt that their needs and concerns were not being fully acknowledged. In an effort to bridge the apparent gap between the Veterans and the VA, Congress authorized the establishment of Vet Centers. These centers were located across the nation and they were designed to assist the Veteran and his family through counseling and referral services. The Vietnam era Veteran slowly began to utilize the centers and they were beginning to prove effective. Simultaneously, VVA #103 established a Call-A-Vet Hotline.
The purpose of this hotline was to answer a need of a Veteran - any Veteran -- or his/her family member -- for an immediate response to a crisis situation. The Chapter mobilized its members, established a phone line in conjunction with the local Volunteer Center, conduct training exercises for personnel to improve communication skills and develop knowledge of referral services. The Call-A-Vet has become a critical component of the Chapter’s answer to serve the needs of the Vietnam era Veteran by helping when called. The program has had its successes. It continues to function and be effective.
The VA Task Force was established so that VVA #103’s efforts would work in conjunction with the Vet Center and the VA Medical Center. The Chapter saw a need that it could fill. Each entity had a share of the responsibility for the welfare of the Vietnam era Veteran. VVA #103 was instrumental in establishing an effective and affective bridge between the various entities in the delivery of services. Chapter #103, in its effort to create a networking team, demonstrated its characteristic compassion for brothers in need by making the system work for the Veteran. This effort was also demonstrative of the fact that the lives of Veterans and their needs are complex and they must be responded to in a timely and effective manner. The formation of the VA Task Force allowed for effective and positive communication among component parts. It allowed for a better understanding of roles in the Veteran Community. It has gone a long way in creating an atmosphere in which services promised to the Veteran are delivered.
In the years 1987 and 1988, VVA #103 made its influence felt at the state level and the National level by calling attention to the POW/MIA issue. Chapter #103 drafted, introduced to State Council and VVA National Convention, a resolution acknowledging the presence of live POW’s in Southeast Asia and for continued efforts by the United States to press for their release.
The issue of POW/MIA’s was brought to very public attention by arranging press conferences concerning the issue and by Wegman’s Corporation, placing the POW/MIA logo on its paper grocery bags, challenging the public to show their concern by contacting their local representative about the issue. The response was tremendous. George Wortley, then Representative of VVA #103 area, received over 1,200 letters in response to the effort. VVA #103 was the instrument that persuaded Wegman’s to make the effort. VVA #103 greatly appreciated Wegman’s generous response.
At this time there was great concern over the fate of the War Memorial. VVA #103 voted to refurbish the structure rather than have it demolished. VVA #103 is very conscious and attentive to the memory of past service. The thought of the effort involved in building the KVM was in the Chapter’s mind when they voted as they did. Their concern was that the War Memorial was built by World War II Veterans with private donations. If the War Memorial were destroyed, the memory of their service would soon be forgotten. VVA #103 did not want that to happen.
In 1988 Leadership changed again. Gordon Lane retired as President and Alex Allmayer-Beck was elected by the membership. The transition was smooth and the important programs instituted in 1987 were maintained and/or expanded.
In June of 1988, Gordon Lane was elected State Chairperson for the New York State Council, Vietnam Veterans of America.
VVA #103 hosted the State Convention in June of 1988 and the preparation and execution of the convention was flawless. The State Convention and all that its preparation demanded was well received by other Chapters in the State. The impression was a lasting one that served the delegates to the 1989 National Convention well. The ability of delegates from VVA #103 to use their contacts and to make their feeling known was noticed by delegates across the country. New York State has one of the largest contingents of representatives in the entire VVA. The impact of VVA #103 was felt and it’s feelings were made known. Gordon Lane was elected to an "At-Large" Member of the Board of directors for the National Vietnam Veterans of America.
Back in Syracuse, one committee was involving the Chapter in an ever widening range of activities which were to benefit the Veterans in the country. The committee is VVA #103 Community Service Committee, chaired by Jim Miller and co-chaired by Rita Sondej. Among other things, this committee is responsible for a television program broadcast on Cooke Cable vision, Channel 7. The program, "Vietnam Veteran’s Issues," aired in February 1989. All production personnel are members of VVA #103. The program is an interview program which covers a variety of topics in depth. The program has as its purpose to inform the Veteran of issues affecting him/her or which are of interest. More and more people are watching the program and it is well received. VVA #103 is the first and only Chapter in the country to have such a vehicle.
In April, 1990, chapter elections were held and a new President was elected. Bob Capriles took over the reigns of leadership from Alex Beck, who served ably for two terms. Bob began his tenure by making a call for more involvement in chapter activities by chapter members. And so a new year began. During the spring and summer, the chapter sponsored picnics, specifically Memorial Day weekend and then in August. The picnic in August was held at Longbranch Park, Liverpool and it acknowledged the efforts of those who volunteered the time and energies to various chapter projects.
The Longbranch weekend was very busy. Memorial Day weekend the chapter represented Vietnam Veterans at St. Joseph’s Church, Camillus, the Veteran’s Cemetery, Onondaga Hill, the War Memorial, and the City of Syracuse. In June, the WA State Convention witnessed tBacillusard as they posted the colors at the Holiday Inn on Farrell Road. July 4 saw us at Manlius where we won 2nd prize for military units. In Rome, theNDd walked about a million miles on American Heritage Day. Tina Hawks deserves the "Grunt of the Year" Award’ for her efforts. We visited Mattydale and participated in the MattydaleVolunteer Fire Department Field Days. The Veteran’s Administration Medical Center was visited by the ColorguMatchable/MIA Day, September 21. The ColorguaMatchablepresented the chapter at groundbreground breakinges for the Convention Center in downtown Syracuse. The Colorguaground breakingrticipated in the funeral rites, of Officer W. Howard, who was killed in the line of duty. Finally, on an overcast, windy, cold November 11, the colors were unfurled once more to remember those who served and are serving their country at the present time. Chapter #103 participated in Veteran’s Day event in Syracuse.
The meeting place changed once again. It was decided that the chapter should hold its meeting in the downtown area. The manager of The Tavern on the Square graciously allowed us to convene at his establishment. We have since August, but our search for a home continues.
The VVA State Council met in Syracuse in June. Bert Mowers and Debbie Wilcox did enormous amounts of work to make the event the success it was. Chapter involvement was massive and the delegates from around the state had a productive meeting. VVA #103 continues to make its impact felt throughout the state.
The Vietnam Veteran’s Leadership Program scored a stunning success. The committee, under the leadership of Jim Mahoney and Mark Adams brought to fruition the distribution of four one thousand dollar scholarships to the sons and daughters of in-country Vietnam veterans. At a ceremony on November 9 at the Hotels at Syracuse Square, William Epilito, Michelle LaFleur, Rebecca Davenport, and Jennifer Jordon received the first scholarship. The ceremony was attended by the County Executive, the Mayor of the City of Syracuse, and representatives of state and federal representatives.
The chapter is very active. The level of involvement continues to deepen and the array of concerns is becoming more focused. The chapter is reaching out to veterans and their families of minority groups. The chapter is beginning to take the first tentative steps to unravel the mystery of the effects of Agent Orange. The chapter is involving itself in the plight of Amerasians. The television program on cable TV has been acknowledged in the area as one of the most informative programs of its kind. And the story goes on.
The Community service Committee of VVA #103, in a sense, embodies the essence of the Chapter. When a need is recognized it is responded to. The members of the committee are tireless in their efforts to bring needed services or relief to the Veteran. They and the Chapter they are part of serve the Community, the whole community, in 1990-1991.
The story of VVA #103 is an amazing one. From simple beginnings, filled with hopes and dreams, of years ago. VVA #103 has become respected, influential, and important to the Veterans Community and to the Community at large. The reasons are simple -- the nature of Vietnam era Veterans is that of someone who cares and is involved. The members of the Chapter stepped forward once to serve and they continue to do so now.
All of the preceding was accomplished by real people. Since 1982, the Chapter has grown, evolved and become a recognized influence in Onondaga County. What follows is a list of those who made it happen:
Chapter Presidents: Mike VanDer Mark, 1983-84
Vince Larkin, ,1984-86
Jack Tiffany, 1986-87
Gordon Lane, 1987-88
Alex Allmayer-Beck 1988-90
Robert Capriiles 1990-91
All Others: Mike Matthews, Norm Mordue, Dave Holihan, "Pappy" Patchin, Steve Popowniak, Bill Martin, Gerry Willsey, John Dimon, Clive Herne, Jim Olin, Dave Cyrulik, Joe Lotito, Joe Miller, Larry Fanto, Don Benack, Edgar Young, Jim Miller, Rita Sondej, Bob Capriles, Bryan Hedges, John Butler, Peter Bronstad, Don Perry, Bert Mowers, Bill Hatch, Mark Adams, Don DiFlorio, Burt Pederson, Mel Little, Bill Wilcox, Brian Courtney, Charles Rubado, Dawn Krueger, Trish Tiffany, Nancy Chruchill, John McGuire, Bill Schultz, Ron Davies, Tina Hawks, Patty Plumadore, Mike Haven, Bruce McDaniels, Al Randolph, Len Milbyer, Luigi Lombardi, George Sylvester, Dave Marvin, Vie Catarisano, John O’Gavaghan, Mark Brennan, Gene Chylinski, Jim Mahoney, Debbie Wilcox, and Duncan Greene.
All of the above plus the support of wives, friends, associates and the Community of Central New York.