A Convention of Superlatives:
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY MICHAEL KEATING
It was a Convention of superlatives. It was VVA’s largest: 799 delegates came together in Jacksonville, Florida, and debated, argued, huddled together, laughed, gossiped, hollered, and finally reset the course for Vietnam Veterans of America for the next two years.
The Veterans Mall, likewise, was the largest in VVA history with nearly forty vendors and exhibitors, including for the first time two vendors selling official VVA gear.
As usual, the sixteenth VVA National Convention had plenty of politics. There was lots of flesh-pressing and lots of talk. The caucus rooms, in particular, were so packed that air conditioning systems malfunctioned while violent subtropical thunderstorms raged outside, throwing rain against windows flashed with lightning.
Region 3 brought 175 delegates to the Convention, making it the largest regional delegation. While its former director, Bruce Whitaker, mounted a spirited campaign, he failed in his second attempt to unseat incumbent National President John Rowan, who was re-elected for an unprecedented fifth term.
Incumbent Vice President Fred Elliott wasn’t so lucky. The VP spot was won handily by Women Veterans Committee Chair Marsha Four, who became the first woman vice president of a major veterans service organization. In 1987 Mary Stout, who returned to an active role in VVA as a delegate to this year’s Convention, was the first woman to serve as president of VVA. She remains the only woman to have led a VSO.
Secretary Bill Meeks ran unopposed. Treasurer Wayne Reynolds edged out a challenge by Buckeye State Council President Tom Burke. Although a large field of contenders ran for the Board of Directors, the Board was little changed. Four of the ten incumbent at-large directors were unseated. The new at-large directorsall first-timersare Joe Kristek of North Carolina, Linda Blankenship of Alabama, Jim Pace of Washington, and Tennessee’s Charlie Hobbs, the election’s highest vote getter. All incumbent regional directors were re-elected, with the exception of Sandie Wilson, who lost Region 5 to newcomer Dennis Cohoon. (For a full list of the names of the new Officers and Board members, see the Elections Committee Report).
“I’ve heard nothing but positives about the whole Convention,” Rowan said. “A lot of hard work by the national staff, our hosts in Florida, and the Convention Planning Committee paid off. The delegates, as always, showed a seriousness of purpose in debating proposed resolutions and constitutional amendments. This Convention was a big success.”
It’s been thirty years since VVA’s Founding Convention, but delegates still considered fourteen proposed constitutional changes and approved eight of them. They ratified a provision that allows for honorary members, one that provides a mechanism for state council presidents to fill officer vacancies, and another that reduces the minimum number of chapter directors from five to threea change especially relevant to smaller chapters that have had trouble putting together a full-complement board. See the Constitution Committee Report for details.
The Convention Resolutions are often referred to as the organization’s marching orders. Delegates approved just shy of a dozen new resolutions. Two called for the expansion of Agent Orange disability coverage. Another endorsed an American Indian statue on the National Mall. Three called for action on military sexual trauma, and another for expansion of a federal homeless veterans program. See the Resolutions Committee Report for a discussion of the delegates’ decisions.
Meanwhile, Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America held its convention concurrently for the first time. New AVVA officers were elected: Sharon Hobbs, president; Cathy Keister, VP; Johanna Henshaw, secretary; and Bill Williams, treasurer.
It wasn’t all work in Jacksonville, of course. Every public space remained abuzz with chatter often punctuated by laughter and guffaws. Friendships and fondness were obvious as VVA members and their spouses caught up on the news and whiled away the time, or else described chapter and state council successes, pitfalls, and flame-outs. Plots were hatched, then reviewed and revised. Dinner plans were made, and sidetrips to St. Augustine arranged.
Nearly a thousand people attended Tuesday evening’s Welcome Home Party. The Mystery Band played classic rock. Attendees had been encouraged to dress in sixties style, though only a few succumbed to the temptation to appear in public as latter-day flower children. Most were content to renew friendships over a generous number of hot dogs washed down with a few beers.
At Wednesday’s Opening Ceremonies, the local Nicholas J. Cutinha Chapter 1046 Color Guard presented the colors and service flags, and Jolie Holliday sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They were followed by keynote speaker David Bonior, the former congressman from Michigan who had adjured VVA’s Founding Convention in 1983: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another”a quote that became the organization’s founding principle.
The Convention also featured appearances by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Jacksonville’s Rep. Corrine Brown (D), and VVA State Legislator of the Year Bill Wielechowski from Alaska.
There was business. There was play. And there were solemn moments, too. Tuesday VVA and AVVA members gathered for a wreath-laying at Jacksonville’s refurbished Veterans Park. On Friday morning local Chapter 1046 and Clay County Chapter 1059 hosted the POW/MIA ceremony by the St. John’s River in front of the Hyatt Regency. The ceremony was accompanied by the 1046 Color Guard and attended by William G. Byrns, who was shot down over Vietnam and held as a POW for ten months. At the ceremony’s end he helped throw the wreath in the river.
VVA’s Jacksonville Convention concluded with Saturday evening’s Awards Banquet. VVA Commendation Medal awardee Wes Guidry and Marc Leepson used light-hearted humor to frame the extraordinary speeches of those honored by VVA: author H. Lee Barnes, neurobiologist Reid Lyon, former astronaut Guy Bluford, and retired HBO CEO Bill Nelson. U-Haul also received an award for its longtime support of VVA.
|The VVA Veteran® is a publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. ©All rights reserved.
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Silver Spring. MD 20910 | www.vva.org | contact us