STORY AND PHOTOS BY MICHAEL KEATING
Tucson brought new meaning to those old lyrics. It was dry as a bone, yet night after night ominous monsoonal thunderclouds piled high at dusk, creating camera-hungry sunsets and sometimes even rain. And the heat? Oh, the heat. One day topped 118 degrees. But the El Conquistador Hotel’s air conditioning system raged on, forcing attendees to step outside to warm up.
Mornings and evenings were great for slipping into the pool or venturing into nearby state and national parks. Even those who chose to just quietly sip coffee on their rooms’ balconies glimpsed quail, woodpeckers, great-tailed grackles, hummingbirds, desert cottontails, jack rabbits, and even a family of javelinas.
But as the sun turned from warm to scorching, the more than three hundred attendees of the combined VVA and AVVA Leadership & Education Conference headed to one of thirty seminars.
These sessions covered the gamut of VVA interests. Some went over the responsibilities of chapter and state council officers. Others explained the mechanics and pitfalls of writing bylaws, changes to the electronic membership rosters, and ways to navigate the new VVA website. Department of Veterans Affairs staff made presentations on the National Cemetery Administration and eBenefits.
Seminars on subjects of special interest to VVA leaders included secondary PTSD, homelessness among veterans, the hepatitis C epidemic, veteran suicide risk and prevention, and veterans treatment courts. Four advanced service rep classes were held, as well as a Q&A with top service officers. One session went through the nuts and bolts of planning an Agent Orange town hall meeting, while another addressed the options of book publishing.
Before the work began there was a solemn wreath-laying by VVA President John Rowan and AVVA President Sharon Hobbs on Tuesday. That evening a considerably less solemn Welcome Home Party (dress code: Hawaiian shirts) most resembled a gathering of parrots: many bright colors and lots of chatter. Jovert, a local high school steel drum band, provided the rhythm.
At Wednesday’s opening ceremonies for VVA’s conferencethe third in TucsonJohn Rowan described the most recent bump in the progress of the Toxic Exposure Research bill, now part of a much broader Veterans First bill. Recently, a small poison pill was added that would deny Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to the spouses and children of veterans. Rowan praised the work of veterans, noting that this diverse group includes “every race, every color, all ages, both sexes, and all sexual preferences.”
Sharon Hobbs and Arizona State Council President Gene Crego welcomed the crowd, and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild detailed the city’s efforts to end veterans’ homelessness. Finally, Keynote Speaker Lindsey Bier (see “Killing Ghosts” in the March/April 2016 issue) talked about the subject of her postgraduate studies: Vietnam veterans.
Between the opening and closing ceremonies, a lot of information was shared, old friendships renewed, and new ones forged. Freed of internal political concerns, VVA members did what they do best: enjoy and help each other. Methods, schemes, procedures, and gossip were freely exchanged. The idea and importance of the organization’s legacy was broached over and over, its urgency underscored during the Closing Ceremonies with the announcement of the death of former National Vice President Ed Chow.
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