Vietnam Veterans Find Strength in Numbers

Robert Dorroh
By Robert Dorroh March 15, 2010 17:22

Some of VVA Chapter 391's members/Photo by Ben Hicks

Vietnam veterans braved a brutal war, then faced rejection at home. Decades later, many continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or illnesses linked to wartime chemical exposure. A growing number are homeless. Many have not taken advantage of veterans’ benefits.

But that’s beginning to change, and in California, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 391 is leading the way. The 22-year-old group, based in Tuolumne County, is the state’s largest VVA chapter – and ninth largest among some 650 VVA chapters nationwide.

There are two key factors in the chapter’s exponential growth from 60 members in 1998 to more than 400 now, says chapter publicist George Eldridge. Vietnam-era veterans are facing more health issues as they age, and they’re looking to the VVA for help. Tireless recruiting by chapter members Dick Southern and John Mendiola is another reason.

“Dick is always pushing it and John seeks out new members at virtually every fundraising event,” says Eldridge, 66, of Jamestown, a former Naval journalist, chapter public affairs chairman and public affairs officer for the VVA California State Council.

Southern, a former army medic, says the VVA motto sums up the chapter’s mission: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

The Tuolumne resident, who became the group’s membership chairman is 1998, is now second vice president of VVA’s state council and director for VVA Region 9, which covers seven states and the Philippines and Guam. He also sits on the VVA national board of directors.

Southern, 66, says the chapter is not a pop psychology group or 12-step program. “We run it like a business,” he says. “Education and communication are what it takes to get people involved.”

Crystal Falls resident John Mendiola, 58, is a former Army photograph technician and chapter vice president. Among other duties, he is part of the group’s color guard, leads a program helping veterans in state prison, and co-chairs the chapter’s Veterans Emergency Team, which helps any veteran in crisis with immediate needs.

He finds it rewarding that the chapter “is not just out to tell war stories and drink.”

Instead, its main role is to be a central source of information about benefits and services available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, known as the VA. That includes medical care, homeless care, employment help, information about Social Security and other federal programs, and services such as a free shuttle from Sonora to VA sites in Livermore and Palo Alto.

The Tuolumne County Veterans Service Office (533-6280), at 105 E. Hospital Road, Sonora, provides direct assistance to area veterans and their families in obtaining benefits. The Calaveras County Veterans Service Office (754-6624) is at 509 E. Charles St. in San Andreas.

“Seventy-five percent of Vietnam veterans do not access the VA health care system,” Southern says.

Many are simply unaware of what’s available, Eldridge says. Others are reluctant to seek help, particularly with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (see separate story).

“Many don’t realize or are in denial about their PTSD,” he says. “I didn’t realize I had it until years after leaving Vietnam.”

Few veterans, Eldridge notes, are aware of Agent Orange’s role in 15 maladies and diseases, including diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, hypertension, prostate cancer and other illnesses. Yet for those who qualify, free help may be available.

He believes his own diabetes stems from “almost daily” exposure to Agent Orange – containing the highly toxic chemical dioxin – at the U.S. air base in Da Nang. He also flew in aircraft that sprayed the defoliant.

But the problems extend far beyond health care. Nationally, Eldridge says, the number of homeless Vietnam veterans has doubled over the past two years.

Says John Mendiola: “They lose hope and don’t know where to go. They haven’t seen all the opportunities they have.”

VVA-391 was founded in 1987 and chartered in 1988, largely through the efforts of community and veterans’ activist Frank Smart, 69, of Columbia, a combat journalist in Vietnam.

It sprang from his ire over a newspaper story. In 1987, Smart wrote a letter to The Union Democrat, criticizing it for running a story on Huey Newton, former leader of the Black Panthers, then incarcerated at Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown.

“When Mr. Newton was inciting his people to ‘Burn Baby Burn’ I was in Vietnam serving my country honorably and getting shot at daily,” Smart wrote, adding that the newspaper instead should run a story about a down-and-out Vietnam War veteran “who pulled himself up from the bootstraps and made something of his life.”

This spurred Smart and others to organize. Another motivating factor “was to show everyone that we were pretty normal American veterans, albeit castigated in the press and villainized as baby killers and drug addicts,” he says. “Our generation did not have any more or less problems than the Korean and WWII and WWI veterans.”

For several years, they had trouble getting other Vietnam vets interested in joining. “Many Vietnam veterans felt unappreciated by the public and Veterans Administration after the war,” he notes. “They felt forgotten and just put it out of their minds.”

A key decision was made early on, Smart says. “The question was, “Do you want to form a self-help group and attempt to counsel guys with problems or do you want to form a Kiwanis-type chapter, which was community-service oriented? Everyone voted for the latter.”

As a result, the chapter does considerable charity work, including holiday food baskets for the needy, six yearly $1,000 scholarships for local high school seniors who are related to a Vietnam War veteran. It also hosts an annual “Stand Down” in Sonora, offering homeless vets from throughout the foothill counties free medical checkups, clothing, counseling, employment and housing opportunities.

Chapter 391 is open to Vietnam and Vietnam-era vets throughout the foothills. An estimated 13,000 veterans of all military services live in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, the California Department of Veterans Affairs estimates. Some believe the actual number is much higher. Vietnam veterans are a sizeable part of that total, but the exact number is unknown, Southern says.

The chapter accepts all veterans who served during the Vietnam War era from 1964 to 1975, not just members who served in Vietnam. Vietnam veterans from 1961-1964 must have served in Vietnam to join.

Though they can’t join it, the chapter also helps veterans who did not serve during the Vietnam War era.

The group also runs a Veterans Incarcerated Program, whose membership includes some 45 prisoners at Sierra Conservation Center and at Mule Creek in Ione. The inmates meet twice monthly to hear guest speakers talk about job placement, housing, rehabilitation and other resources. And, they’ve organized fundraisers for Operation Mom, a military family support group that sends care packages to soldiers abroad.

Chapter 391’s future? Continued recruitment, and more immediately, a March 28 parade through Sonora – the nation’s first-ever “Welcome Home” parade, a long-overdue demonstration of gratitude and respect.

It’s a far cry from when they returned stateside in the 1960s and ’70s. “When I got back,” Eldridge recalls, “I was told not to wear my uniform in public. People were spitting on veterans and yelling obscenities.”

What a difference the decades make – and the efforts of this still-growing chapter.

“I got a call a few days ago from a Vietnam veteran who asked if he could wear his dress blues in the parade,” Eldridge says. “I said, of course you can.”

Chapter 391 President Dan Brown, 66, is a former Seabee who served near Da Nang during the Tet Offensive. As chapter members’ average age moves ever higher, the group will increase its mentoring of younger veterans, “directing them to resources and helping them start their own groups.”

Many of those Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will need long-term help and support dealing with severe physical and mental injuries, he says.

“But as far as the emotional part of it – coming back and not being recognized for their service – they won’t have to worry about that.”

© 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Robert Dorroh
By Robert Dorroh March 15, 2010 17:22
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