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September/October 2018

photo: Steve Andrascik

This is the third and concluding part (see Part I, Part II) of a free-wheeling conversation between John Rowan, Keith King, Jack Devine, Jerry Klein, Connie Steers, Rick Weidman, and filmmaker John Giannini about VVA’s 1983 Founding Convention and the events that led up to it. It was a long and winding road, peppered with political intrigue and personality clashes, but somehow the outline of a modern veterans organization took shape.

—Michael Keating, Editor

Michael Keating: How were the delegates to the Founding Convention chosen?

Jack Devine: They were self-selected.

Ned Foote: Whoever could afford to go. Everyone paid their own way.

Rick Weidman: We took the first CFC money and paid the way for some people to come in.

Keith King: Some people.

Foote: I never got a dime.

John Rowan: Some people.

King: Some people at best.

Rowan: At best.

King: We raised money in Michigan to bring our guys. We wanted to make sure we had as many bodies as we could possibly bring, because a lot of our guys were still in rap centers and many couldn’t afford it. Hell, we paid for half of the guys from Detroit.

Weidman: Wisconsin stayed in one big room. The hotel management came to me, and I had to go up and explain to the guys, Jenkins and the boys, “No, you can’t light up your propane camp stoves in the room and cook your meals. If you guys are going to do that, you’ve got to go out back.”

Rowan: I think [John] Catterson probably paid for the New York delegation.

King: Did we have a delegate count set up at that time like, you know, first fifty guys, you get one?

Rowan: Yes, yes. There was a count, but I don’t remember exactly what it was. And I think it was fifty. Because we started with fifty; we had to have fifty in every chapter.

Weidman: There was one delegate for each chapter.

King: The original rule for forming a VVA chapter was fifty members, and you had to have five chapters to form a state council. Those were the original rules. It was later changed but coming into the Convention in ’83, that was the rule. We changed the math and reduced the number from fifty down to thirty-five, and you only had to have three chapters in the state instead of five.

What I was talking about was the delegate count. I think we had one vote for the first fifty.

Rowan: Because there were not that many delegates.

King: Like 300.

Rowan: No! Nowhere near that. About 120, 140. I’ve got the list.

Foote: My chapter had two people there, and we both voted. We didn’t have a hundred members.

Weidman: When we went into the Convention, we had 125 chapter numbers given out, of which about ninety were current. There were a lot of chapters that were dead by then, but we had about ninety that were actually good. Some chapters should have died, like those three chapters in Texas that refused to admit Latinos or blacks.

Rowan: There was a lot of that in the early days, not only the racial stuff but there was also the combat versus non-combat force, in-country versus not-in-country…

King: I remember vividly the fights over membership eligibility, the whole thing, for example, between era vets and in-country vets. Those were all hot issues.

Rowan: Bad paper.

King: Bad paper as well, but remember there was that huge fight over should we be in-country only. And then, we started talking about Thailand. Well, what about guys who flew B52s over North Vietnam, even though they were stationed in Okinawa?

That was all part of the Constitution fight. It defines who are members, and we finally came up with a statement that says if you served in the United States military from this time to this time you are eligible, but that was a long, dragged-out fight. There were long arguments about who is a “real” member. Remember we even discussed different classes of members? You could be this, but you cannot be that kind of a member? We had these guys, the LRRPs and recon guys, that were—

Weidman: The gunslinger mentality.

Rambling conversation followed. The group returned to the National Office, where they read the list of delegates. Finally, the list was tallied.

Rowan: Two hundred and twenty-eight.

King: Is that the delegates or just—?

Rowan: Delegates, state council presidents, delegates-at-large. They were the people who voted.

Devine: Is Steve Mason on that list?

Rowan: No Mason.

Devine: What about Pat Pudetti?

Rowan: No Wayne Miller, either.

King: Mason was there, but I do not know if he was a voting delegate.

Foote: I don’t know how good that list is.

The conversation moves from delegates to Board members.

Rowan: There were nineteen Board members and four Officers. Eventually they converted nine of them into the regionals.

King: For the record, the guy who should be known as the Father of Regionalization for VVA is Mike Flannery from Arizona. Mike is the guy who created it, laid out the maps, and wrote it all. We passed it at the ’85 Convention, but it didn’t take effect until ’87. Mike Flannery wrote the entire regionalization: the idea, the plan, the blueprint, the whole bit. Mike ran as vice-president in 1985, and he is the one guy that I feel really bad about because he really got fucked because of this bullshit with Catterson and the boy out of Louisiana who actually had won, and then—

Devine: And then they bartered with him to be an executive director or membership director—then never really did it.

Rowan: And then he got fired a couple weeks later.

Weidman: He never served. They paid him off with a year’s salary.

King: Al Carlyle gets up on the podium at the Convention and says, “Well, okay, I’m resigning as vice president.” Although he had won and already had been declared the winner. “And I’m going to give my votes to Catterson,” and declared Catterson vice president. And Flannery said, “Wait a minute! There was a three-man run. I want a run-off.” And everybody said, “Oh no, we got a majority with his votes,” and declared Catterson the vice president and fucked Flannery.

It was like: Wait a minute. You want to talk about fraud and election stuff? But, of course, they got their guy.

photo: Steve Andrascik

Rowan: It’s interesting here: Congressman Tom Daschle was named National Legislator of the Year.

John Giannini: Daschle was the keynote speaker.

Rowan: And they gave Jan Scruggs an award. He was acclaimed the VVA Vietnam Veteran Citizen of the Year. And they gave Dean Phillips an award, but he was not there. He was on duty or something.

King: Is there anybody else from the original staff? I mean, you are the only original staff left, I think.

Weidman: The original staff was me and Bobby in ’79.

King: Rick is the guy who helped force Bobby into a membership organization.

Weidman: He’s never forgiven me.

King: Bobby was very open about the fact that he didn’t want a membership organization; it was no secret to anyone. Maybe you could give some background, Rick, into that time period.

When I talked to Bobby about it, he said that he was elated—he was ecstatic—that they were finally going to force this Convention, because it would solidify his position. He knew, basically, by putting it all together he was going to be able to take control of the organization and to quit dicking around. But I don’t know how true that is. Was this revisionism or was he dreading the Convention?

Weidman: Actually, Bobby didn’t dread it.

King: What were the significant events that helped make the Convention happen? Besides the meeting that I am aware of and, of course, the forming of the chapters, what formed the critical mass that created the membership organization?

Weidman: Well, the decision to create a membership organization was made in the lobby bar of the Algonquin Hotel in early April of 1979. Bobby finally was convinced that we had to have members and change the name from Council of Vietnam Veterans to Vietnam Veterans of America. So we started the process at that time and, unfortunately, didn’t get it done before Vietnam Veterans Week.

In 1979 I believed Vietnam Veterans Week was going to be a wave. The Carter administration did everything they could to undermine it by starting so late, but I thought the thing was going to take off.

Weidman talks about spending three snow-bound days with Bobby Muller, during which time Weidman agreed to return to VVA.

Weidman: Bobby gets me to come back in September ’81. I go back to D.C. to try to make sense of the total muck that they had made of membership. There were no state councils, and I finally said, “All right, let’s rationalize this.” Then I said, “John, I’ve gone through all this stuff—”

King: This is a story I was always telling you. There was a period of time when he started the chapter and then there was a year, a year-and-a-half, where he didn’t do anything. There was that whole effort that we started out in Chapter 9 in ’79 when we first talked to Muller, and then these guys disappeared until late ’80. And then, again, there was this period of time and now here he’s talking about ’81 when he’s started back.

Weidman: Chapter One ended up being the first chapter because we had set it up—guys wanted to do a fundraiser in Vermont—so I could convince Bobby to do it in ’79. So Donnie Bodette and Jake Jacobson were going to pick up Bobby from the airport and bring him up to the Pickle Barrel, a bar up on a mountain road. We wait and wait and wait and wait. What happens is they kidnapped him and took him back to Donnie’s house and basically beat on Muller until he made them Chapter One. And they didn’t have fifty people.

I bet they didn’t have more than fifteen at that time. So Bobby basically grandfathered them in. We had only been launched like six months. The way the dues came about was people said, “Why $9?”

And I said, “Because it was less than $10.”

He says, “What do you mean?”

I said, “Look, there are so many fucking reasons why Vietnam vets don’t want to join. Don’t make price the deal. You got to get something from them, so make it $9.”

And then what happened is the chapters got pissed off and said, “Hey, we need money.” So they got $9. And then the state councils, when they got formed, started whining, and we said, “Okay, we are going to give the state councils two bucks.” So by 1981 it became $20, and it’s still $20. The only things since ’81 that have not gone up in price are computers, salt, and VVA dues.

King: Right. So it’s now ’81 and you’re back.

Weidman: In ’81 I’m back and chapters are forming. I said to Terzano, “John, I’ve gone through all this stuff that is down here, and I can’t find anything that lists the chapters. Where is the chapter list?” And John, who used to wear corduroy chinos all the time, reaches—no shit—into his back pocket and takes out two sheets of crumpled legal-size yellow paper that have been in there for God knows how long. And he starts straightening that out. That is the only thing we had for a list of chapters. And I said, “Holy fuck. You mean this is it?”

King: And you think I make this shit up.

Weidman: We started to try and figure out what was going on. Chapter 7 in Fayetteville, for example, had run amok. You talk about a fucking mess. John and I went down there to try and get a handle on it and closed it down.

Chapter 7, they had—no shit—about five grocery bags full of receipts—and these guys had raised a lot of money. But nobody knew where the fuck it was, and their only accounting was five bags of receipts.

Rowan: Where were Chapters 2, 3, and 4?

Weidman: California. They’re all gone. What happened was Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, Orange County—
all those—they were all crooked, and we started getting complaints from guys: “Why don’t you send me a membership card?” And we said, “We’ve never heard of you.” And the reason we had never heard of them is because these chapters were collecting dues and never sending anything in.

They were taking all the money, and it was a scam. We made three trips out there, and finally closed them down.

King: The original Chapter 9 guys would go out and find Vietnam vets with Vietnam Veteran bumper stickers in Michigan in ’79. We’d grab those guys.

Giannini: What was the point in ’79 of having bumper stickers developed? “Stay out of my way. I’m fucking loaded”?

Rowan: “I’m tired of apologizing. I’m fucking tired of apologizing.”

Rowan: Jimmy Carter had Vietnam Veterans Week in 1979.

Weidman: It wasn’t Jimmy Carter’s idea. It was [Rep. Dave] Bonior who came to Bobby in the early fall of ’78, and said, “What can I do for you?” And that was after this amazing string of twenty-four op-eds or editorials in an eight-month period in the Washington Post to be greeted by dead silence—dead silence from the Hill.

And, literally, they wouldn’t let us into the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee; they would make us stand in the hallway. They wouldn’t even give us a hearing or anything and so Bonior came to Bobby and said, “What can I do?” And he said, “Get the other people and organize a caucus.” And Bonior reached out to everybody.

King: Vietnam Veterans in Congress.

Weidman: And they started holding forums on the Hill, and because they actually got much more press—real press like the Times and the Post—it made Chairman Ray Roberts crazy because the committee never got any decent press. But then, they were not addressing any of the real issues.

King: So we’re at ’81 headed into ’82, and we were still trying to get to the Convention—

Weidman: Well, we had a little bump along the way: Bobby decided that it was time to go back to Vietnam. This was December ’81.

King: This was one of the things that created a lot of animosity.

Rowan: That was when I did the pin. There was a lot happening—we had just started our chapter, Bobby was saying, “I’m going over to Vietnam.” We had no identification. What you had was the ribbon in a circle and the words “Vietnam Veterans of America” on the side. So I said fuck this, we need an emblem, and I just wrapped the name around that circle. It went to a guy who is a pin maker to the world in New York City, and he made the white one.

Weidman: The reason why it became what it is now is that Greg went to a pin maker and said, “I can get a better deal.”

Rowan: It was a blue one.

Weidman: No, they fucked up. The pin maker fucked up, and so Greg and I got into a furious argument about the white border versus the blue border, and Bobby finally got tired of us arguing. In the fall of ’81 he said, “Stop. I don’t want to hear any more about this bullshit. How many pins do we have in the white?” I think we had like 200 of them.

“How many do we have in the blue?” 500.


And that is how it happened.

During Vietnam Veterans Week, Bobby shows up at the office; he was supposed to be on an airplane going to the reception at the White House. And I said, “What the fuck are you doing here?” And he said, “I don’t like the guy.” I said, “Who gives a fuck whether you like Carter or not? He is the President of the United States. You’ve got to go.”

And so we called Virginia; she drove him to La Guardia. She brought his suit and got him changed in the restroom at La Guardia. He gets on the plane and he goes down to Washington. He is late and that’s why he is going into the East Room at the same time as Carter, and that became the fucking picture of Carter bending down and shaking hands with Muller. And it was the guy in the chair with the President that became the picture that came out of that White House event.

The next day, we had the IOU Day thing, and this lady calls me up from Time magazine, and she and I talked back and forth. And I said, “You know, you really ought to make Muller one of your One Hundred Young Leaders.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said.

“Really, you ought to talk to him.”

“I don’t know. I can’t get out right now.”

So I went down to the IOU event and found Bobby, and we shot across town to 49th Street where the Time-Life Building was and got him up there, and we show up in the lady’s office. Muller gives her the treatment. And that’s how he became one of the One Hundred Young Leaders of America, which got VVA’s name out there.

King: So you’re in ’81 going into ’82. What happened?

Weidman: ’81 going into the ’82—the trip to Vietnam—they don’t listen to me; they listen to Murphy. And I said, “You know, you’re liable to get ambushed with this thing; you have got to have security with this thing.”

“No, no, no. Murphy has it covered.”

Well, Murphy didn’t have a fucking thing covered. So Frank McCarthy and Al Santoli ambushed Bobby on the evening news; guys were screaming about traitors laying a wreath at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and blah, blah, blah.

We were handling things in the mail. We contacted all the chapters and every member about why we were going there. And the agenda is still the same agenda as today, which was fullest possible accounting and to get research going on Agent Orange because that’s a natural laboratory.

As we went into ’82, we were trying to help get the state councils to take charge because there was no way in hell we were going to be able to mediate all the nonsense going on with the chapters. Even if you had a big staff, and we didn’t have a big staff.

King: I know New York formed in ’82. Michigan formed in March of ’82. And I know Ohio was forming in ’82. We had a copy of the New York State Council bylaws stamped “Draft.” We didn’t like the way New York was doing its delegate count.

Devine: There was a southern state bias against Detroit. They thought we were trying to control everything.

King: Right.

Keating: And you did?

King: Right. It was one vote. My vote.

Weidman: After the showdown in Poughkeepsie, [Tom] Bird was dropped as vice president.

Rowan: Bird had been a grunt, but he lied about being a POW. The story was that his coach started to tell the story, and he decided to run with it, then kept going with it. That’s when the shit hit the fan. When Bobby came to Poughkeepsie for the state council meeting in ’82, he and I had a screaming match about getting rid of Bird. It’s the first time I ever saw anyone beat down Bobby, but I made him get rid of Bird.

Weidman: Afterward, we all went outside and they wanted to take a photo. So Jerry Klein said, “All right, all you enlisted men, over here. All the officers, over there.” So Bobby rolled over to the side and looked over, and it is like thirty-five of us on the other side. And he looks at us with his mouth open as only Muller could and he said, “No.” We all looked at each other and said, “Yeeahh.” He was the only officer there.

Devine: That is cool.

King: So some time in ’82 heading into ’83, things start coming together to where we finally force the meeting and get to have the Convention in ’83.

Weidman: I finally told Bobby, “Look, the natives are restless, buddy. You’ve got to put together a board that broadly represents, and we’ve got to move toward doing something that makes sense.” The key that allowed us to do that was getting into the Combined Federal Campaign in 1982. ’83 was when we first started to get money, but we got in in ’82.

A guy named Jim Abernathy had been doing some development work for us, and he drafted part of the application. But you had to have the chapters agree to be the representatives, and Bobby didn’t think they would agree because there was so much bitterness—

Rowan: You had to have so many out in the field.

Weidman: Bobby didn’t think the chapters would do it. And it’s true: They probably wouldn’t have done it for Bobby. But Kenny [Berez] and I called everyone, and we had enough of a trust level with the chapters that they agreed to it. We got it within the requisite amount of time; we only had two weeks to put the thing together.

So Lynda [Van Devanter] is typing the thing on the old word processor that was about the size of John’s desk and was taking forever. And Abernathy was losing his mind; Trezano was upstairs beating his head against the wall and saying, “We are never going to make it.” We finished it—it was due at 5 o’clock—and jumped in Kenny’s car. He raced across town, then we got stuck in Vice President Bush’s motorcade. I jumped out by the Ellipse and ran in cowboy boots all the way over to OPM at 19th and E and they had reversed the escalators.

So I ran up the steps to the seventh floor to the Director’s office where you had to have it date stamped. I ran in and it was, like, 4:59. And I gasped, “Date stamp! Date stamp!” And the woman is like, “Holy shit, this guy runs in in leather jacket, blue jeans, and boots, calling “Date stamp!”

So she date-stamps it, and we just made it under the wire. But when we came to the hearing, Christian and UVVO had also put in for the Combined Federal Campaign. For whatever reason, they hadn’t picked up on the fact you can’t be a [501] C19 and be in the CFC. And the CFC didn’t understand that UVVO was a C19. Bobby comes back from the hearing and we are in.

But so is Christian. And I said, “You’ve got to go back. He can’t be in it.”

And he said, “Why not?”

I said, “It’s a C19. They can’t be in it. That’s why we had to go in as Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

So Bobby said, “Well, they’re in now.”

I said, “You’ve got to go back over.”

“No,” he said, “I can’t do that.”

I said, “You’ve got to. This is not for you and it’s not you vs. David. You’ve got a lot of people—hundreds, if not thousands—who spent the baby’s milk money to get this far. UVVO will walk out with half the money, and it will go down the fucking drain. You owe it to those who spent the baby’s milk money to go back over there and tell them.”

So we did, and they threw UVVO out. That’s why we made it, because we had CFC money coming in to be able to reach out to David Addlestone and bring him in-house to start the service rep program, finally finish writing and printing the Service Rep Manual, and we got paid for the first time in a year and a half.

Bobby wanted me to run the marketing, and I said, “I’m not doing it. I will show Kenny how to do it but that is not why I’m here. I didn’t come here to spend all my time raising money. I came here to do mission stuff.” And so I worked out a marketing plan for Kenny about how to get in—not only get into each of the local CFCs, including the big ones like Puget Sound and San Diego, but also how to hustle and do the advertising and stuff that we needed to do. I tried to discuss these plans later when I came back to VVA, but I was mostly ignored.

The other VSOs eventually caught on and created their own foundations in order to join the CFC. But for a long time we were the only ones, and that’s why we got so much money: We received $3 million by 1985. And in ’85 dollars, $3 million was a lot of money. On the other hand, Bobby could spend money. Unbelievable.

By early ’83 Bobby knew we had to come to Convention. The state presidents were bullying him and jamming him. He also knew he couldn’t keep going out and assuaging people. We had to have something where everybody came at once and felt like we legitimized the thing, number one. Number two is the parade legitimized us like nothing else. And Bobby for the first time understood that if we had a national Convention in Washington and at a place like the Shoreham and invited people, it would further legitimize us.

After the parade, people at VA and on the Hill said to me, “You guys are really for real. You have chapters all over the country.”

Rowan: Yeah, the ’82 parade was VVA. The only visible signs were those of VVA chapters.

King: We had banners. I saw photos of us marching down Constitution Avenue with the Chapter 9 banner.

Weidman: People said to me, “You guys really do have chapters all over the country. But you guys have more colors and more logos than any veterans organization I ever saw.” And I said, “We’re creative, to paraphrase Will Rogers—

King: I never saw a logo I didn’t like.

Weidman: I’m not a member of any organized veterans group. I’m a proud member of VVA.

photo: Steve Andrascik





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