TEXT AND PHOTOS BY MICHAEL KEATING
Like the theater, VVA’s Leadership Conferences have often been considered imaginary invalids. Each year brings hand-wringing discussions about whether the conferences are really necessary. But each year the event surprises and delights, and VVA and AVVA members learn new skills while spending convivial hours with other attendees and staff.
This year the recently rechristened Leadership & Education Conference landed in Wichita at the Hyatt Regency along the Arkansas River. Opening ceremonies on August 6 began with a startled Dorothy (Kansas State Council President Ron Zink’s granddaughter Kinley Polzin) marveling, “We are in Kansas,” and Pat Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, jazzed VVA leaders with a fast-talking review of the Seven Qualities of Leadership.
President John Rowan gave the crowd (a third of attendees were first-timers) its marching orders; then the 295 registered attendees scattered for three-and-a-half days packed with seminars.
But “opening ceremonies,” in a way, was a misnomer, because conference activities had already begun. Although VVA traditionally lays a wreath at the Vietnam veterans memorial of the host city, this year two wreaths were laid: one at Wichita’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and another at the nearby memorial to the Vietnamese veterans of the war.
That evening participants had celebrated at the Welcome Home Partyand AVVA’s fifteenth anniversarywith the music of Boswell, a young band with unique interpretations of sixties classics. Although the hotdogs had run short, the conviviality never did.
But with the conclusion of the opening ceremonies, the work began in earnest. Mary Stout provided a thorough review of the workings of the Membership Department and its interaction with the chapters and state councils. Leslie DeLong and Mike Swift led a dense discussion on the mechanics and ramifications of chapter and state council bylaws. Others attended Theresa Hancock and Maquel Marshall’s overview of the VA’s eBenefits that explained the most important aspects of the program and how veterans can track and control their data.
Pete Peterson gave a practical primer on how to work with and influence elected officals. Meanwhile, Marc Leepson and Wes Guidry organized a disputation on the fine points of flag protocola session sometimes reminiscent of ecclesiastic debates of medieval dogma.
This year’s name change came about to better recognize the dual nature of the seminars. Manysuch as Wayne Reynolds and Joe Sternburg’s on the treasurer’s duties, Mike Swift’s multiple sessions on parliamentary procedure, Tom Burke and Ned Foote’s presentation on the role of presidents, and Bridget Cooper’s leadership roundtablesought to teach the hands-on mechanics of organizing and maintaining an organization. That is, Leadership.
Other seminars addressed subjects of special interest to veterans. Toms Hall and Berger led a seminar on suicide risk and prevention. Sandy Miller talked about organizing a stand down, while Herb Worthington led a discussion on how to put together an Agent Orange town hall meeting. Kate O’Hare-Palmer, Linda Blankenship, “Tank” Konstenius, and Fr. Phil Salois conducted a seminar on healthy living and alternate approaches to pain management. AVVA members described one of their most recent innovations: a VISTA program designed to track the volunteer hours of AVVA members. And service officers were offered many hours of back-to-back advanced training.
Much attention was given to the media, too. One seminar put attendees on the spot: They were interviewed while being filmed, then their performances critiqued. But it was all in fun, and clearly illustrated strengths and pitfalls of television interviews.
Another took members through the process of writing public service announcements that actually get broadcast. In yet another seminar, The VVA Veteran staff members were joined by Francisco Muniz of the New York State Council and Charles Earthman of Redwood Empire (California) Chapter 223 to discuss different approaches to reimagining printed publications for electronic media.
Thursday’s Agent Orange town hall meeting, organized by the Kansas State Council, drew nearly 150 people, including Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), who recently introduced the Toxic Exposure Research and Military Family Support Act (S-2738).
Friday morning Jim Deisterjoined by Mel Lucas, Jim Cole, Blas Ortiz, and Diane and Harry Nicholsonled a beautifully reimagined POW/MIA ceremony. It included a candlelit memorial and concluded with the release of fifty black balloons.
By Saturday evening, the VVA and AVVA members who had gathered for the 2014 Leadership & Education Conference were starting to feel the effects of their weeklong workout. Nonetheless, they donned their finery to be entertained by VVA’s Martin and Lewis (Leepson and Guidry) and to applaud this year’s Arts Award recipients: musicians Kimo Williams and Terrie Frankel, writer Jim Northrup, and actor Tucker Smallwood.
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