Vietnam Veterans of America
Always bustling with activity—from behind-the-scenes advocacy to high-visibility public appearances—South Bay (California) Chapter 53 has been described as a VVA “Energizer Bunny.” Covering the densely populated, ethnically diverse southwest corner of Los Angeles County, the chapter has grown from some 90 members eight years ago to more than 150 today.
Like most VVA chapters, 53’s goings-on center on a small core of active members. Many of its current projects trace back to seventeen-year president Jerry Yamamoto.
“We see that there’s a big need to help people here because we’re living in such a large area that has veterans, especially homeless veterans,” said Yamamoto, an at-large member of VVA’s Board of Directors for the past twelve years. “And then we have a large community out here that helps the military—like the Blue Star Mothers, the Gold Star Mothers, the USO, and Operation Gratitude.”
With the Culver City chapter to the north largely inactive, Yamamoto says Chapter 53 is covering an area from the sprawling San Fernando Valley all the way down to Long Beach. “We’re a nomad chapter—we meet wherever we can in the general area,” explained Steve Crecy, a Chapter 53 board member and former president. “At the present time we meet at a VFW hall just a little bit east of Torrance, California.”
High School Essay Program
For twenty-two years Chapter 53 has offered a scholarship essay program for area high school seniors. Entrants are invited to submit a 500-1,000-word report on a Vietnam-era veteran—often a family member, friend, or neighbor—to be judged by a chapter subcommittee on content and quality of writing.
“We just want to see if it looks genuine—if it looks as if the student really made some kind of connection and gained some knowledge by doing this process,” said Crecy. “If it comes down to having to cut someone out, we might do so based on grammar or spelling.”
Entrants are required to address a topic such as what the Vietnam War meant to the veteran they talked to; what the conflict meant to the veteran’s family; how the Vietnam War relates to America’s history; or the impact of current events on the student’s views about Vietnam veterans. Yamamoto said that Chapter 53 contacted thirty-eight area high schools about the last essay program, and received eleven entries—of which four earned $1,000 awards.
Hermosa Beach Veterans Memorial
In 1992 local Vietnam veteran Ken Marks spearheaded the creation of a memorial to veterans in his native Hermosa Beach. Crecy, a city parks and recreation commissioner at the time, was on the memorial committee. With Hermosa Beach in Chapter 53 territory, the group was central to the $25,000 fundraising effort for the memorial. It maintains the site to this day.
Using an original sketch by local Vietnam vet Jim Antonius, the memorial committee worked with a team of volunteers, including architects and civil engineers, to finalize the design. Completed in 1994 at the Community Center East Lawn in Hermosa Beach, the striking memorial centers on a flagpole that acts as the pin of an accurate sundial surrounded by five pyramids representing the branches of the U.S. military. The sundial reflects a “veterans are timeless” concept first coined by committee member William Buchanan, a medic in Vietnam.
“Our memorial is dedicated to all veterans,” Crecy said, “even though the job was done primarily by Vietnam veterans.”
Every month, Chapter 53 members clean the memorial, maintain its lighting, and—three times a year—change its flag. “There may be six to eight members who come out,” said Yamamoto. “They clean the memorial by hand, and they wash off the concrete area surrounding it.”
When skateboarders damaged the monument a few years ago, Chapter 53 hired a specialized company to repair and modify it.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway
Many of Chapter 53’s activities are aimed at increasing the visibility of veterans and veterans’ issues. The idea is to honor those who have served and to keep issues such as homelessness and health care in the mind of the public.
To this end, Chapter 53—and Yamamoto in particular—were prime movers in getting a stretch of the heavily trafficked California State Route 1 running through L.A. County designated as the Los Angeles County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway. In 2001 Assemblyman George Nakano (D-Torrance) introduced legislation at the request of Chapter 53 resulting in the erection of signposts to mark the Memorial Highway from Long Beach to Malibu.
“It’s for the Vietnam veterans to have recognition that people would see every day as they drive down that highway,” said Yamamoto, who served as an Army psychology-social work specialist in 1966-68, “especially the millions of people driving down that highway through Los Angeles County.”
Parade Vehicle & Color Guard
Also in the cause of keeping Vietnam vets in public view while attracting new chapter members, Chapter 53 enters a service vehicle in the annual City of Torrance Armed Forces Day Parade, now in its 58th consecutive year.
“Torrance is a very patriotic city,” noted Crecy, who served in Vietnam with the 15th Engineer Battalion in the 9th Infantry Division in 1968. “They’re one of the two or three cities in the United States that has always had an Armed Forces Day Parade.”
Chapter 53 usually borrows a decommissioned military vehicle for the parade, which helps draw attention to its message. “It’s a recognition of Vietnam veterans and other war veterans,” Yamamoto said. “It helps stimulate that recognition among our community members, and we have maybe 50,000 people attend the parade.”
Chapter 53 also helps with the Torrance Police Department’s breakfast on the morning of the parade and operates a booth displaying military memorabilia. The chapter’s recently formed color guard, which participates in area military and veterans events, also keeps VVA in the public eye.
“The best we can do is present a positive side of Vietnam veterans,” said Crecy, a member of the color guard. “We’re not large enough or wealthy enough to provide direct programs, but we can reallocate some of our funds into the community.” Chapter 53 donates to Packages for Patriots, American Gold Star Mothers, the National Veterans Foundation, the Gary Sinise Foundation, USO, Operation Gratitude, the Fisher House Foundation, and area high school ROTC battalions.
Chapter 53 also hums with many less visible endeavors, notably advocacy to initiate or influence legislation at many levels of government. Yamamoto has had a long and very active advocacy relationship with Ted Lieu, a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s 33rd Congressional District.
“He had supported our chapter and local veterans as a member of the City Council for Torrance,” Yamamoto said. “He is supporting not only our chapter, but our state council. In 2008, for the twentieth anniversary celebration at the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento, we were able to get him to sponsor that bill.” In March Rep. Lieu was nominated by Chapter 53 for Honorary Life Membership.
Crecy pushed for the return of the National Defense Service Medal, which originally had been introduced under President Eisenhower as a “blanket campaign medal. It came to my attention in 1999 that our military was not receiving this medal,” he said, upset at the memory of service members killed in training accidents before even arriving in combat zones. “So the thought was, ‘Hey, at least have something for their family.’ ”
Crecy was able, with the assistance of then-Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), to have legislation passed to reinstate the awarding of that medal. “We’re now getting involved with local municipalities to where we have members on several local commissions,” Yamamoto said. “It’s crucial that we keep that contact with them, and if they have veterans in their city councils, sign ’em up as members.
“Advocacy is huge,” he concluded. “I have contacted about six local House members in the Los Angeles area to help me with support on bills that we want passed in Congress.”
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