MIKE BARBER, P-I REPORTER
They humped into the boonies 40 years ago, wary of ambushes from the tall elephant grass, rice paddies, and triple-canopied forests of Vietnam.
They returned home, to the “real world,” only to battle their own government for recognition of the physical and mental wounds inflicted by Agent Orange defoliant and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As its membership grows older, now averaging nearly 60, Vietnam Veterans of America Inc. — a powerful, congressionally chartered non-profit — is preparing for the day it will pass the torch.
The recipient is Veterans of Modern Warfare Inc., a newly incorporated non-profit founded last month in Kansas City, Mo., with the aim of qualifying for its own congressional charter. The last veterans organization so recognized by Congress was the Air Force Sergeants Association in 1997, veterans say.
The VMW’s first president is Julie Mock, 39, of Woodinville, an Army veteran of the 1991 Gulf War with service-connected multiple sclerosis. The group plans to draw its base from those who have served the nation in uniform since Aug. 2, 1990 — a population that includes an estimated 3 million veterans who have served in conflicts in places such as Bosnia and Somalia, and from Desert Storm to Afghanistan and Iraq.
VVA’s executive director, Rick Weidman, 59, a former Army medic in Vietnam, points to that organization’s motto and founding principle when asked why his group is embracing younger veterans.
“Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” he said.
“I can remember people questioning our patriotism because we said something about Agent Orange or when we were being told there was no such things as post-traumatic stress disorder,” Weidman said.
For modern veterans, “the timing is right and the conditions are right. They have a good set of initial leaders and as long as they have a solid plan and head in a good direction, we will give them resources and a boost,” Weidman said.
At the same time, “we are not going to patronize them and tell them what to do,” Weidman said. “The Vietnam Veterans of America is clearly committed from the chapter level on up to do everything we can to assist newer veterans to create their own voice.”
“I think we have a lot in common with the Vietnam veterans,” Mock said. “The illnesses and (toxic) exposures and experiences of Vietnam veterans were negated for a long time, and obviously our illnesses and exposures and experiences are still being negated.
“The VVA have helped us set ourselves up to mirror their successful organizational structure, so that when they are ready to pass the torch, we are in a position to take it from them. We will benefit from all their years of experience and their mentoring us,” she said.
When VMW incorporated last month, it and its Vietnam counterpart agreed that 1991 Gulf War veterans were being forgotten in the shadows of today’s wars, just as Korea became the “forgotten war” as Vietnam evolved, she said.
Weidman said Vietnam veterans are deeply concerned about those who served in the 1991 war and today’s all-volunteer troops, who now are serving third and fourth deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Weidman said fellow Vietnam veterans at first wanted to open VVA to a new generation.
After listening to several Vietnam veterans in one enthusiastic exchange over the issue, Weidman stepped in and asked, “When you came home from Vietnam, would you have joined a Korean War Veterans of America? What makes you think Gulf War or Operation Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom veterans will join Vietnam Veterans of America?”
To earn a congressional charter as a national veterans service organization, Veterans of Modern Warfare must attract a seed core of 2,000 members in 20 states, or form chapters in at least 10 states. It also must demonstrate the capacity to represent veterans’ claims before the Veterans Affairs department, or to have an agreement with another recognized veterans organization to do so.
For information about Veterans of Modern Warfare Inc., check the National Gulf War Resource Center Web site at www.ngwrc.org. Or phone 866-531-7183.
A benefit for Veterans of Modern Warfare Inc. is planned by www.nonprofitcomedy.com/seattle on Tuesday, Aug. 28, at the Comedy Underground in Pioneer Square, Seattle. Cost: $10, or $5 for veterans with a DD-214 form or military identification.
P-I reporter Mike Barber can be reached at 206-448-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.