Vietnam Veterans of America
Clermont County Chapter 649 is the largest VVA chapter in Ohio with 258 members. For a short time it held the position of the 25th largest chapter in the nation. However, numbers alone do not make a great chapter, which is evident when speaking with its members. From the beginning, the founding members set the direction for the future by being extremely active in their community.
Twenty-seven years ago they set out to build a memorial featuring a UH-1 Huey helicopter—a very energetic project for a young chapter. The Cincinnati Enquirer said this about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Union Township Park: “Cheers and tears accompanied a freshly painted UH-1H Huey helicopter as it landed at its final destination in Union Township Park.”
The date was March 21, 1993. Spring was in the air. You could feel the excitement everywhere—the sense of pride, the emotions of a roller-coaster year of planning and fundraising, of dreaming and manual labor, all coming together to form this one moment in time. You could see the joy in every face.
Something else was also in the air that cool spring day as the members of Chapter 649 marched in the parade from Glen Este High School to the dedication of the Lt. Andrew Haglage Vietnam Veterans Memorial, named for a 25-year-old Marine Corps pilot from Batavia who was killed while flying a helicopter in Vietnam in 1969. That something else was a spirit that has continued for decades.
Steve Tam, one of 649’s founding members, described it this way: “From the very beginning the members and the community became involved in the building process of the memorial. Contractors donated time and materials and county residents donated their time and money. Members stood on street corners to collect donations. Schools benefited through visits from Chapter 649 members as one company donated the use of a flatbed trailer and volunteered to tow the helicopter from one school to another so students could experience veterans talking about their Vietnam experience while gathering around a helicopter that flew in combat.”
Today, the memorial attracts visitors year-round who come for Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies or just stop by to locate their family memorial brick in the 8,000-brick patio beneath the helicopter. Chapter Webmaster Wayne Gregory designed and maintains an elaborate brick locator on the website where people can find the location of their bricks.
Chapter 649 didn’t stop with one memorial. Over the years they raised funds to add several others: a black granite bench in honor of Korean War veterans, a granite panel for the women who served in Vietnam, another to remember the POWs and MIAs, a monument dedicated to the dogs that served in combat, and the Gold Star Mothers Memorial that features memorial pavers, each engraved with a mother’s name and the son she lost. Recently a Purple Heart memorial was added by the local Society of the Purple Heart chapter.
Michael Newman, 649’s current president, commented, “It’s the veterans and members who volunteer to do the day-to-day work of the chapter that made us successful. While the big draw is the memorial, it takes volunteers to maintain it, promote it through the news media, sell the bricks, and install the bricks.”
Keeping the spirit alive and maintaining membership numbers requires reaching out to veterans who have never heard of VVA or do not know that they may be entitled to medical benefits and service-connected disability assistance. In the beginning, Cliff Riley, who served as president and Membership Committee chair, remembers going to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and looking up those who had Vietnam veteran license plates. “We also looked up DD-214s at the county courthouse and asked members to contact their high school alumni,” he said.
Longtime member and current Membership chair Gene Wilt has kept busy making sure that all members convert to life member status. Thanks to a special donation, the chapter is paying twenty-five dollars toward a lifetime membership for anyone who renews or becomes a new member before the end of the year.
Even though the leadership of Chapter 649 has changed over the years, the spirit has not faded as chapter members kept reinventing ways to reach out to their fellow veterans and to the community.
Outreach to veterans from all generations is an important element in fulfilling the mission of never leaving any veteran behind. This is where Mark Brandon and the Community Affairs Committee spring into action with Meet and Greets at local retail stores, bingo at the local Veterans Home, and trips to the airport to welcome home Honor Flights.
“I believe that our success has continued to evolve because many of our fellow veterans are now retiring and looking for something to do where they can make a difference,” he said. “VVA 649 provides that opportunity in many ways. From helping ten or twelve needy veterans at Christmas with $400 gift cards to visiting four schools a year to talk about our war experiences. Providing food at every monthly meeting and having a guest speaker help to keep our members coming out.”
The chapter’s annual Flag Retirement Ceremony, now in its ninth year, is a community event. Residents are encouraged to bring worn-out flags to the event for proper disposal. Chapter 649 works with a local Boy Scout troop to conduct the ceremony. Proper retirement techniques are demonstrated, as well as flag folding and flag etiquette. Steve Tam chairs the event and has been known to approach homeowners and ask them to replace their torn and faded flags. More than three thousand flags were collected and properly retired in 2019.
ACTIVE IN THE COMMUNITY
Samuel Bray, one of 649’s newest members, looked at other organizations when he began to think about joining a group. “I liked the chapter because they were active in the community and had a variety of outreach programs to assist veterans,” he said. “Also, the county and the townships include veterans in their activities. Being a member is not just about the monthly meeting. It’s going out into the community, sharing our experiences and telling the Vietnam War story.” Bray is now a board member and state delegate.
Phil Dodge, the chapter secretary, chairs the Scholarship Committee. Two $1,000 college scholarships were awarded this year to local high school seniors. The chapter believes that it is important to support the children and grandchildren of veterans. About a dozen students apply, and the winners are chosen by the committee.
Fundraising has played a large part in the chapter’s success. About ten years ago an annual budget was established and goals set to try to have one year’s operating budget in reserve to cover the following year’s expenses. That way, the money 649 raises one year is for the following year’s expenses. The annual golf outing brings in about a third of the budget. The remainder comes from raffles, the community, the Household Goods program, and other fundraising activities.
Public awareness has been a key element in the chapter’s growth. Publicity directed to newspapers, radio, and TV news programs has helped create an identity for the chapter while getting the word out about the annual Flag Retirement Program, Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, and other events. A press release is sent to all media for every event—including the monthly membership meeting.
The chapter’s Business of the Month Award honors a local business that has helped the chapter in some way throughout the year. It also increases public awareness about the chapter. A certificate of appreciation is presented to the business. A photograph and press release are sent to the media and published in 649’s monthly newsletter.
In the past twenty-seven years Chapter 649 has been involved in many community events—from bringing the Moving Wall to Clermont County to hosting the first Hep-C workshop in the country. Members have come to the aid of veterans who lost their homes to fires and helped those who just needed a hug when life got to be hard to handle.
“There’s a lot of work to be done and we could do better,” Michael Newman said. “Visiting our members when we haven’t seen them for a couple of meetings is a good way to stay in touch. We need to do more of that. Volunteering and making ourselves more available to other veterans and their families through Meet and Greets provides a link to the community that we can’t get in a monthly meeting.”
As the members of Chapter 649 direct their attention to the future, they continue to focus on the spirit that has made their success possible as they welcome new generations of veterans to join them and help continue their mission: to provide fellowship, advocacy, and education about veterans benefits, as well as financial assistance to veterans of all eras—all pursuant to VVA’s Founding Principle: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
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