|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Looking to the Future: The Rise and Fall of GA-21
Sometime in the mid-1990s a VVA national office staffer spotted a short article in one of the newsweekly magazines that discussed the date when the last Vietnam War veteran would shuffle off this mortal coil. He showed the article to a few others in the office, and they had a big laugh about it. We were in our early fifties then and that end date seemed very far in the future.
We all knew that Vietnam Veterans of America came into existence in 1978 with an expiration date. It’s in our name. It’s in our Constitution, which the delegates to VVA’s first National Convention adopted in 1983: Membership “is open to any veteran of the military service of the United States of America who served on active duty during the dates established by federal law for the Vietnam War.”
That clause sealed the organization’s fate. We would go out of business when there weren’t enough Vietnam War veterans to keep the organization afloat. In other words, Vietnam Veterans of America always has been a last-man-standing organization.
VVA’s leaders and members didn’t start taking the ramifications of the built-in end date seriously, though, until relatively recently. One important reason: From the very beginning, VVA had too much on its plate of immediate consequence to Vietnam veterans and their families to worry about something that wouldn’t happen until the mid-21st century.
“We had too many battles to fight,” said VVA President John Rowan, who has been an active VVA member since soon after the organization was founded. “There was too much to do with the stuff in front of us to deal with anything about the future. And our battles lasted much longer than they should have.”
Rowan said that in a perfect world VVA “should have been done” with fighting for Vietnam veterans’ rights “ten or fifteen years after the war.” But crucial elements of those fights—mainly for government recognition of the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange; for effective programs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder; and for addressing myriad issues in the Department of Veterans Affairs, including Vietnam veterans’ earned benefits—have continued to this day.
It also didn’t help that for much of its first two decades VVA had to battle what came to be known as the “Iron Triangle:” the old-line veterans service organizations, the Congress, and the VA, all of which were controlled by World War II-generation leaders and officials. They all “gave us a hard time,” Rowan said, as VVA was “bringing in new issues that the old boys never thought of.”
VVA had little respect—and virtually no help—from any of the Iron Triangle leaders during its long, hard fight to get the VA to recognize what has become a long list of health conditions caused by exposure to Agent Orange. In addition, the Iron Triangle “didn’t do anything for PTSD” for too many years after the war, as Rowan said. If a Vietnam War veteran went to the VA seeking mental counseling, “they would put you away if they [diagnosed] you as totally crazy. If you were a little whacky, it was, ‘Let’s put Johnny away before he does something bad.’”
That is, “if they treated you at all,” Rowan said. “Mostly they told you to take a hike. Or they’d say, ‘Uncle Joe was in the war so that’s why it’s okay for him to drink himself to death at the bar.’”
Another factor that added to not seriously contemplating VVA’s ultimate future: Since the early 2000s our membership numbers have been climbing steadily even as members entered their sixties and seventies. “Amazingly enough,” Rowan said in October, “our membership numbers are up, and we are still getting more new people, even as [significant numbers of members] die. But that’s going to change at some point.”
The steady increase in membership numbers—in October VVA had more than 87,000 members, an all-time high—has come at the same time that member participation in VVA leadership activities has fallen considerably. “An awful lot of our members are not participating, and a lot who were heavily participating can no longer do so physically and mentally, or are gone,” said Jack McManus, VVA’s National Treasurer.
The problem has started to manifest itself at the state council level, as the Minnesota State Council recently decided to disband in 2021 because of the extreme difficulty in getting members to work in leadership positions. “I think that is just the tip of the iceberg,” McManus said. “Other state council presidents are having similar problems. In the next couple of years I think we’re going to see many other state councils close. It’s going to be tough.”
McManus also pointed out that “fewer delegates are coming to our conventions as a percentage of membership. And we are seeing almost no competitive elections in the chapters; many are having challenges filling officers’ seats and committee chairs. And it’s only going to get worse when we start losing people left and right.
“We are mortal. We not going to be here forever.”
AN EMOTIONAL ISSUE
In the early 2000s VVA began to seriously consider changing the organization’s membership requirements and allow younger veterans to have full membership. The issue was—and continues to be—an emotional one for many members. Scores of letters to the editor to The VVA Veteran attest to the fact that members have strong feelings on both sides of the issue.
Many argue that VVA was started as the nation’s only national veterans service organization that worked exclusively for Vietnam veterans and their families, mainly because the old-line VSOs had turned their backs on us after we came home, and continued to do so for two decades. Others argued that VVA should live up to its founding principle—“Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another”—and open up membership to post-Vietnam War veterans.
Things came to a head at the 13th biennial National Convention in Springfield, Illinois, in 2007. The most contentious issue at the Convention was a proposed amendment to the VVA Constitution to open full membership to the newest generation of veterans. VVA had been supportive of several new veterans organizations since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991: the National Gulf War Resource Center (which shared office space with VVA); the Wounded Warrior Project, which formed in 2003; and the Veterans of Modern Warfare, which sent some of its members to the 2007 National Convention to lobby for the change.
Feelings ran strong on both sides during a passionate debate over the proposed amendment in 2007. In the end, it was soundly defeated by voice vote. “I think,” one delegate said, expressing a widely held view, “that Iraq War veterans should cast their own shadow and not walk in our shadow.”
The vote may have been decisive, but the issue did not go away. “That vote was more emotional than it was practical,” Jack McManus said. “I don’t think anybody realized what [not having a plan for the future] meant organizationally” for VVA. “Not a lot of thought was given to how we would perpetuate ourselves or how we would close down the organization.”
As VVA’s leaders did begin to realize the implications of remaining a last-man-standing organization, it became evident that we needed a plan to deal with VVA’s impending end. The basic question was: Should VVA fade out and dissolve when membership drastically dwindled, or should we set the stage for a successor organization to take over when the last VVA member no longer was standing.
In April 2010, the Board of Directors created a strategic planning taskforce to look at the issue, headed by then Vice President Jack Devine. The following April Devine reported to the Board that the task force came to the conclusion that VVA members overwhelmingly wanted to remain a last-man-standing organization.
WORKING GROUPS I & II
The Board next addressed the issue at its April 2014 meeting when it created a strategic working group to study the issue further. That led to the Board’s decision in October 2016 to set up two ad hoc committees, which came to be known as Working Groups I and II, to look deeply into the two main alternatives.
Working Group I, chaired by Idaho State Council President Bob Seal, examined what would be involved in planning an orderly end to the organization and insuring that VVA’s legacy would be carried on in some way after we were gone. As the Board put it, the group’s job was to examine the “legal requirements associated with dissolution of [VVA], as well as the practical aspects of identifying and transferring issues important to the legacy of VVA to other organizations that will preserve and extend” that legacy.
Working Group II, chaired by Francisco Muniz, former Secretary of the New York State Council, looked at what would be involved in setting up a successor organization—in the Board’s words, the “forming, chartering, funding and/or empowerment of a new veterans’ organization to perpetuate our legacy.”
After nearly two years of study, the two Working Groups made presentations on what they’d come up with to overflow crowds of attendees at the National Leadership & Education Conference in Palm Springs, California, in July 2018.
Working Group I reported on its progress with recommendations on a plan to dissolve VVA—including disposing of its assets—before an end date that could come as early as 2028. Working Group II discussed options for a successor organization. That included group member Bud Alley’s recommendation to form a Vietnam Veterans of America Legacy Foundation to preserve VVA’s work while helping other organizations take on VVA’s mission.
On the Leadership Conference’s final day attendees packed a room for a Q&A with the Board, Officers, and members of both Working Groups.
In April 2019 Working Group I submitted a 70-page “Strategic Plan for Dissolution,” and Working Group II submitted an 11-page “unredacted version” of its Executive Summary report to the VVA Board of Directors.
Working Group I offered two Constitutional Amendments to the delegates at the 2019 National Convention in Spokane, Washington. Together they would have added a dissolution section to the VVA Constitution authorizing the National Officers and the Board of Directors to manage the legal dissolution of VVA on or about December 31, 2028. The delegates rejected that proposed amendment 437 to 231. Working Group II did not present a constitutional amendment.
Later, the Convention delegates debated a resolution that called for VVA to take an initial small step to look into changing VVA’s name and allowing new veterans into the organization.
That was the essence of Resolution GA-21, “Changing of the Name of Vietnam Veterans of America.” After a relatively short debate, the delegates approved the resolution, which reads, in its entirety:
“Resolved, That: Require VVA’s Officers and Board of Directors investigate the requirements to change the name of Vietnam Veterans of America to a name that would entice post-Vietnam era veterans to join the renamed organization and then open up membership to these newer veterans. The proposed changes would be presented to the delegates at the 2021 Convention for ratification.”
Since then, there has been confusion over what the resolution mandated. A significant portion of members came to believe that it required VVA to change its name and its membership criteria. Many suspected a done deal. But, as Rex Moody, who heads VVA’s Conference of State Council Presidents, wrote in these pages earlier this year, that was not the case.
The resolution “simply requires VVA’s Officers and Board of Directors to investigate the requirements to change the name of VVA to something that would entice post-Vietnam veterans to join the organization,” Moody wrote. It “only directs the National Board of Directors (of which the VVA National Officers are members) to investigate the requirements to make changes—not to actually make those changes.”
Actually changing the name and its membership criteria, Moody pointed out, “requires amending the VVA Constitution, which “can only be accomplished at a National Convention by a 2/3rds vote of the delegates present.”
After the Convention, the VVA Officers and Board of Directors looked at changing VVA’s name, but ultimately decided not to do so. GA-21 is dead—or nearly so. Its obituary won’t be official until the resolution is retired at the next Convention. But the combination of opposition by VVA members and a marked lack of interest by younger veterans made the issue moot. Now the organization’s leaders are trying to come up with a blueprint on how to move forward.
“We’re working out the kinks,” John Rowan said. “We can run VVA out for a long time as long as there are people living and [caring] about the organization—although that’s becoming questionable. It’s not whether [members] are dead or alive—it’s whether they’re walking. It’s serious. So we are looking at passing the torch, and yet still maintaining the camaraderie and helping our own people.
“We hung on for years as a very small organization. We punched way above our weight. Now we finally have some real numbers, but you have to deal with the reality of what’s happening.”
Exactly what will occur “still has not been solidly determined,” Jack McManus said. The final decision will be up to a vote at an upcoming VVA National Convention. “The way it appears to me is that [VVA] is going to fade away at some point, but some” of VVA’s national programs “will move to some yet-to-be-designated parallel organization that carries forward our values.
“There’s a big trust issue. Who does VVA trust? Ultimately, whoever we appoint, we just have to trust they’re going to do the best they can and that they generally follow in the direction we want them to go. If we can get past the trust issue, I think we can do it pretty well.”
McManus stressed that VVA will have to come up with a plan that details exactly how we go about the transition. “We need a comprehensive plan about how we will continue to operate going forward and then how we develop a series of alliances with our chapters and state councils as the national organization downsizes,” he said. “Just the ability to do strategic alliances to move some of our programs from VVA to another organization will take a lot of collaboration and a lot of planning and work to get done if it’s going to get done in a smooth fashion. There are a whole series of steps that have to be taken for that to happen.”
The best guess is that delegates to the 2021 National Convention, scheduled to begin on August 10, will most likely vote on what McManus termed “some type of roadmap and direction,” and that a specific plan will be drawn up to present to delegates at the 2023 National Convention.
“It’s a very complex thing when you have fifty different State Council corporations, 600 hundred-plus active chapters, and many other organizational elements to address,” he said. “Plus the relationship with the yet-to-be determined organization that will handle what are now VVA national programs.” Complex, McManus said, but “very doable.”
In the meantime, as John Rowan put it: “VVA has done incredible work since we’ve been here, and we will keep doing incredible work.”
|The VVA Veteran® is a publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. ©All rights reserved.
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Silver Spring, MD 20910 | www.vva.org | contact us