Vietnam Veterans of America
Michael Keating: You were talking about spontaneity. Were the committees already formed? Were they decided upon before the Convention?
Keith King: That was decided at the Convention, and they were stacked with people who they thought were going to support them.
Keating: Who decided, for example, that there was going to be a Constitution Committee?
King: That was part of the rules fight in the beginning about what we were going to do. When we walked in, Bobby [Muller] had acting officers and a board of directors.
Keating: But this board was not elected?
John Rowan: No, it wasn’t elected. When did we get into the fight over Tom Bird? Was that before the Convention?
Ned Foote: Yeah.
Rowan: In Poughkeepsie?
John Giannini: Was the fight with Bird that he had faked his records?
Rowan: Bird was the vice president. The New York State Council was formed in ’82. We were meeting and Bobby came up with Bird. Bobby was trying to shove Bird down our throats. Bobby and I got into a heated freaking argument. I said, “No, this shithead’s got to go. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts. We cannot have this albatross around our necks. He’s got to go.”
And I was able to finally sway the guys at the meeting to agree with me against Bobby, which was not easy to do because Bobby was pretty goddamn persuasive.
Bobby finally said, “All right.” And that was the end of Bird. Bird disappeared. But he did not disappear actually.
Giannini: I have a video sequence of him and Terzano riding in a taxi in Washington on the way to a legislative reception. He was around; he was in the wings.
Rowan: The sad part was Bird was actually a pretty smart cookie, and he formed the Veterans Ensemble Theater Company in New York and did some really cool shit. Like Greg Kane. Do you remember Greg Kane?
King: He was the fundraising guy. But to answer Mike’s question, basically every one of us was hand-picked to be on the committees because they thought you either thought like they did or were going to support their candidacy.
Jerry Klein: Bobby was a very controlling person because of his personality. He controlled everybody, so he chose everybody he wanted.
Foote: We’re making Bobby out like he’s a bad guy.
Klein: I’m not saying that at all. But he was a very controlling person.
Keating: So he decided upon the committees and then staffed the committees?
King: Bobby took that right out of the UAW Handbook. Those were standing committees out of the UAW.
Rowan: Bobby created VVA because people squeezed him to do it. He really didn’t want to do it.
Jack Devine: He was opposed to a membership organization.
Rowan: He really didn’t want a membership organization; he didn’t like the whole idea. He wanted to control everything, and he had a very set agenda. In fact, I think he would be the first to admit it. His downfall was creating an organization, because a lot of other people had other ideas.
Bobby had this mania about making up to the Vietnamese, that he had done these terrible things to the Vietnamese, and he wanted to save them.
King: But these were the left wing—what we consider left-wing radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War. That was his mentality; that was his mindset. Rick Weidman is the person who went to Muller and convinced him that to be able to have a strong political voice—which is what Muller really wanted—he had to have a membership organization. As long as he was a lobbyist of one, he would never be successful.
Rowan: Let’s remember that the original name was the Council of Vietnam Veterans. It was Rusty Lindley and a whole bunch of other guys who operated out of D.C.
Bobby had this whole little cadre of guys. I wish I could remember all their names. Rusty Lindley is one that comes to mind. And they were all serious combat vets who were lobbyists, basically. And then Rick tried to turn it around.
Interestingly enough, one of the unsung people that nobody knew, except me and Rick probably, is a guy by the name of Sandy Rothbart. He was the general counsel for the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs. He was also past state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and he was the one who helped VVA get incorporated, helped them get some money, put in their basic structure, who got us even to the point of having a Convention.
Rowan: Yeah, the whole C-19 thing. It was Sandy because of his expertise and experience in the VFW. And it was, interestingly enough, because he was one of the few old guys willing to help us out. He thought it was important that we get organized. And he knew damned well his own colleagues—the old boys network—couldn’t give a shit about us. I think it was also a combination of things. I also think, maybe because of his Jewish background, he was not so hot with the VFW, either.
King: Muller and Terzano came to Detroit to get money from the UAW. They were looking for money, and they heard of us, and they started talking to us, and they saw this group of guys in Detroit. Later we received a letter, “Go ahead and form Chapter 9 in Detroit,” dated December 1980. But we had already been talking to these boys, and that letter was signed by John Terzano as membership director.
Devine: We picked up our charter at the Founding Convention.
Connie Steers: Yeah. We all did.
Rowan: We all did. Nobody had any charters before that.
King: I mean, if you look at this time period, December of 1980, we are only talking about forming chapters. So if you look at it in the sense of him coming into town trying to get money, trying to get something from the UAW because Terzano was connected with the Reuther family, and you look at all of those things, we kept saying among ourselves—and I actually have minutes from Vietnam Veterans of Michigan/VVA—we could not decide if we were going to join these dudes out of New York.
Devine: We didn’t know if we could trust them.
King: Exactly. How can we trust these guys? Why should we join them? And then we find out we have more money than they do.
Keating: And you didn’t really know them, except for Muller and just a few people, until the Founding Convention?
Rowan: Think about that. You guys had Chapter 9 going up in 1980. My first meeting of Chapter 32 was not until September of 1981. So that’s how long it took him to go from that point, from really a fledgling thought to even starting to think about a chapter. And my chapter got one because he had this guy working for him—Jerry Balcom—who was a Vietnam vet and a court officer.
Somehow, Bobby got him to start looking for people. Bobby had my name from the old VVAW days and he had a couple of other guys. And Balcom tracked me down and said, “Come on. We got to start doing something.” And he happened to be a client of the Queens Vet Center, so that was the first place we went, and we had enough guys on the spot to create a chapter between the guys in the Vet Center and all of the guys in my neighborhood that I was hanging out with. Everybody was a fricking Vietnam vet. We were able to pull it together.
King: A part of this history in those years between ’80 and the ’83 Founding Convention is Rick Weidman, because he was the guy who went out and formed Chapter One. And we used to joke about this. Chapter One was one guy, and it was this dude named Rick Weidman. Well, wait a minute, there might be three guys, but he made the other two up. We never saw these guys; we never heard of them; we never communicated with them.
Then Bobby would roll into town and go on, “Well, you know membership’s not all that important. We will get to it someday, but can you help us in Washington?” And Jack’s going, “Well, yeah. I worked for this congressman; I worked for that senator.” I mean, we were really figuring out: What is this guy going to do for us? For two or three years already we had been organizing in Michigan.
Rowan: Yeah, but what Bobby had was rock star status.
King: Yeah. He had that.
Foote: Bobby had been on TV, but you had been, too, going back to the VVAW days.
Rowan: Bobby had been on the Dick Cavett Show many times.
Giannini: There was a documentary about Vietnam veterans and the Bronx VA. Bobby appeared throughout the film. You constantly go back to Bobby, who was speaking more articulately and more passionately than anybody else. He was wearing a turtleneck sweater or something. He was sitting in a park somewhere, and toward the end of the film they pull back and you see that the guy has been saying all this from a wheelchair.
Rowan: The Kingsbridge Hospital was infamous. One ward for the paraplegic guys spawned three people: Bobby Muller, Ron Kovic, and Jim Peters. Peters was one of the leaders of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans for many years.
Klein: I can remember in ’72 Bobby talking about forming a real veterans service organization.
Rowan: And also when Bobby started to come back again, you’ve got to remember the Playboy ad.
Keating: There was a Playboy ad?
Rowan: Oh, yeah.
Keating: What was the Playboy ad?
Rowan: The Playboy ad was “Join VVA”—just flat out. I mean there was a big VVA ad.
Keating: Full page?
Rowan: Oh, yeah, a whole page. There was not any problem with them; they were very supportive. At the same time Penthouse became famous not just because of the broads. They ran the “Vietnam Veteran’s Adviser” for years. It was the only place that had anything about veteran stuff, and it was all Vietnam veteran issues.
Giannini: I always thought that there was this sort of competition between Muller and Kovic to be the most famous paralyzed veteran.
Rowan: You’re right. There was this West Coast thing and the East Coast thing and Muller was on the East Coast and Kovic went out to the West Coast.
King: I remember, though, a huge, hot topic was bad paper. Remember all the arguments about the guys who had gotten busted smoking dope?
Foote: I don’t think that was our argument. That was the VFW argument against us.
King: We kept saying if you served, you could join. There was so much bad paper.
Devine: That’s why we said we’d take them.
Rowan: By 1983 I had already served on the board of directors of the Veterans Upgrade Center for about five years. The Veterans Upgrade Center was exactly what it sounds like; it was built and established to get guys upgraded discharges. We had a bunch of Vietnam vets, and somehow we got some money. I don’t know how the hell it ever happened. We actually took it over from some real political hack, and we had all of these guys working for us. They were all Vietnam vets. There were three lawyers and a shrink and a couple of other guys who were doing intake stuff.
And our job was getting guys’ discharges upgraded. We had like a 70 to 80 percent upgrading rate because so many of them were such bullshit discharges. The classic story was the three-year enlistee. Three-year enlistees got screwed. They go to basic training, AIT, blah, blah, blah, you’re in four, five, six months, maybe. You get shipped to Vietnam; you do your year; now you are a year and a half, maybe a little less than two, and you come back to the States, and you’ve still got a year hanging around your neck.
Giannini: I got sent back for a second tour.
Rowan: Some people did, but they couldn’t force you.
Giannini: I didn’t know that.
Rowan: But the bottom line is you had these guys sitting back in the States that have come back from Vietnam, and you hate everything. The war sucked and you feel like shit, and you get some split-tail lieutenant yelling at you because your shoes aren’t polished, and you want to punch him out.
What happened was—Nader did a study of this in ’73—half a million less-than-honorable discharges were given to guys for stupid administrative reasons. They would say, “Hey, kid, you want to go home? You want to get out of here? Sign this.” And you’re nineteen years old, you’re twenty years old, you’ve been through the war. You said, “Screw this. Get me the hell out of here.” So you sign. So they give you a general or less-than-honorable discharge, and you get screwed.
Rick Weidman: My favorite pictures out of that Convention are a picture of George Claxton dead asleep on the table and another of Donnie Bodette and all the officers and the new Board on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial administering the oath as president of Chapter One. I’m trying to remind those guys that they were responsible to the membership. That did not take with Bobby, but it did with the Board, maybe.
Rowan: That was another story, Bobby and the Board—
Devine: That was a very, very poignant part of the Founding Convention when we were sworn in on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Each of us was given a rose, and then we went and put the roses on The Wall next to someone we knew. That was very, very moving.
Weidman: It ended on Veterans Day so we could go to The Wall. But when the Vietnam TV series came on, things stopped, and it didn’t matter. Wherever there was a television, there was a clump of guys.
Giannini: I sat in the New York delegation; we were shooting, and they came to the part in the documentary where Johnson is saying, “I will not now nor will I ever or will I accept the, I will not seek nor will I accept. . .”
Weidman: “…my party’s nomination.”
Giannini: And at that moment, somebody came in with a stack of pizzas and put them down, and the whole place is going crazy, and everybody started singing, “Happy trails to you.”
Weidman: That was the only time that business stopped. Otherwise, it went virtually nonstop, twenty-four hours a day.
King: We ran twenty-two, twenty-three hours a day because of the workload that we were trying to get crammed in, get done, and reported out, and then go back to the session and start all over again.
Weidman: Before things started, we had Randy Fowler. Bobby had a bright idea of bringing in Randy Fowler as executive director.
Randy had decided that there would be resolutions ahead of time written by Terzano, cleared by Bobby, and people could vote them up or down with no amendments. The first time he told us that, I looked at him and I said, “You aren’t one of the quick Marines, are you?” And he said, “What do you mean? That’s just the way it has to be. You will just have to accept it.” I said, “First of all, Randy, you have a bunch of combat Vietnam veterans, and they will tear the fucking place apart. Two, what is the first order of business in a convention?”
He said, “Well, the Pledge of Allegiance.”
I said, “No. The first order of business, once you get past the opening ceremony, is adoption of the rules. They’re not going to accept that they’re going to have to accept whatever Bobby says the resolutions are. No way. It ain’t going to happen, buddy.
“So you got to have a way; we got to be prepared for changes and prepared to make copies as stuff changes, and we have to have committees in order to do that.” So they said, “Well, what kind of committees?” So I wrote the first list of committees.
Bill Elmore showed up from St. Louis and told the story about the—in those days it was called Economic Affairs. I saw him in the lobby as he came in the door, and I was just going out for a meeting at the Department of Labor. I said, “Billy, give your bags to the concierge. Come on, we’re going over to the Department of Labor.” He said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, we’re going to discuss a number of things, and we are going to come back and write the resolutions for employment.” And he said, “So that’s how this shit works, huh?”
King: I was on the Resolutions Committee.
Weidman: The five of you.
King: Yeah, and again, we were going through all of these things, and we were having our own internal discussion like, “Who wrote this shit, and why would we report this to the floor?” Then, of course, once we did report things to the floor, and he would blow them up, and we would go back in and then do the rewrites over and over again, because, again, this whole process was like, “What have you guys done?” That’s why we were working twenty-four hours.
Weidman: But the UAW saved our ass because every night after the stuff was typed and corrected, we would send somebody down with a cab first thing in the morning to UAW headquarters in Washington. The guys would make all the copies and collate and staple them.
King: We were talking about “typos.” That was part of where it came from because anytime there was a change, you couldn’t just make a change and come back out. They had to run and take all these out to be printed. So we started calling them “typos”—do you remember?
Weidman: “Get out your pens.”
Devine: “Here’s a typo; write this out.”
King: We were also talking about the issues and some of the things that were going on. John had mentioned that at that time we did not know it was PTSD; it was still called the Vietnam syndrome. We were still working with different terms back then and the whole idea of rap sessions.
Foote: All of this had barely started to scratch the surface.
Weidman: Trip-wire vets.
King: We realized we had issues, but we did not know how to articulate them. We were talking earlier about the drug and alcohol problems and our behavioral problems and those things attributable to the Vietnam syndrome. And we were all going, “What the hell is this?” But we did not have those definitions.
Foote: Jim Rogers was one of the guys who started talking, mostly on Agent Orange.
Giannini: He went from the Northwest to Mexico, working with the Indians.
Weidman: Well, he was working with the Indians up in Montana, so he decided it was warmer to go south. Dave Evans, his sidekick, is still making legs. He goes all over the world teaching people how to make prostheses out of indigenous materials.
King: He was the West Virginia State Council president. And he was constantly working with new ways of making artificial limbs.
Weidman: That’s because he couldn’t get a set of legs from the VA that fit. That’s what pissed him off and so he said, “Fuck! I can do better than this.” So he started making prostheses. He taught himself how to do it.
King: There were only four or five guys out of West Virginia, but they were pretty good ones.
Weidman: Those guys were really good. You guys missed all of the stuff beforehand. If Randy hadn’t had his breakdown, we would have been a disaster because once Randy snapped—
Devine: So, he saved the Convention.
Weidman: Once he snapped, because he was so inflexible on everything, and we were losing our fucking minds.
Keating: Who was this?
Weidman: Randy Fowler. He was a great guy. But once he wasn’t there, we started picking up the pieces. We got to the opening and realized that we hadn’t done seat assignments. Terzano and I were trying to figure out the seating arrangements and putting labels on the chairs.
The other thing that hadn’t occurred to us was that we needed a Sergeant-at-Arms. So I went out the hallway and found Mike McWaters—Fat Tuesday—who was a Vet Center counselor from Alaska, a great big handlebar-moustache member. He makes John look small.
Mike only had to walk over. He had been a Force Recon guy and Marine. All he had to do was walk over, and everybody started to calm down. And so we had a Sergeant-at-Arms.
The defining moment for me, though, for the whole Convention was when, if you recall, you couldn’t cross the Convention floor. So we had the peanut gallery toward the lobby (if you were looking at the podium, to the left). There were chairs set up on the right, but you couldn’t get over to them.
Rowan: You could go around the back.
Weidman: Well, you couldn’t get around the back because of that asshole with the cameras. No, you couldn’t get around the back. And so, there were guys standing. One guy could not stand up very well, and he was leaning against the wall. He had a prosthesis. And so another guy yells out, “How about a chair for my brother?” All of a sudden everybody looked around, and the guys went over on the right-hand side and over their heads, and passed the chairs right across the Convention floor. It was a magic moment.
King: Yes. We talked about that, but we couldn’t remember what triggered it. We also talked about the time when we got pissed off, and we were throwing chairs at each other.
Weidman: Everybody looks around and realizes there are people standing. There are chairs over there that are empty, and so we started passing them overhead. It was just magic.
Devine: That was a catalyst because then we knew we could work together.
Weidman: Yes, it was amazing. Simple but amazing. Ohio actually worked with New York, if you can make that happen, which didn’t happen a lot, except under duress.
King: Ohio could not work with Ohio, let alone anybody else.
Weidman: Well, in those days, actually, Ohio had pretty tight discipline between Dwayne Goodridge and David Aldstadt. Paul Wappenstein was the saddest case because he was so depressed; he ran against Terzano.
King: We couldn’t remember any of the guys who ran for vice president, treasurer, or secretary. We remembered John Blake ran against Muller for president.
Weidman: No, Aldstadt ran against Bobby.
Devine: It was Blake, too. There were two or three guys.
Weidman: Blake did not get the votes. Aldstadt was the only serious candidate. Wappenstein ran against Terzano. He was a big guy from Indiana with flaming red hair. He is the only guy other than John Rowan who had flaming red hair and a flaming red beard.
Foote: And he had something to do with radio, right? Newspapers?
Weidman: He owned some weekly newspapers. Sometime after he had been back, he was very depressed, and he stopped on the interstate. There wasn’t anything wrong with his car. He stopped his car and stepped out in front of a semi. So, it was clear that it was a suicide.
King: Do you remember anyone who ran for Treasurer or Secretary?
Weidman: Well, in those days it was Secretary-Treasurer. They weren’t separate offices.
King: No, we had Casteel as Treasurer, and Leckinger as secretary.
Weidman: Oh, okay.
King: I can’t remember any of the other candidates.
Weidman: I don’t know that there were that many.
King: I think there were two or three guys who ran for president. Aldstadt was one of them.
Rowan: He didn’t have a prayer.
Weidman: David went on to become Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Ohio. He was all about service and substance. Always was.
Devine: Didn’t he start AOL or have something to do with it?
Weidman: No. That was Dan Meeks. But not AOL; it was CompuServe.
King: CompuServe created what we know as AOL. They created AOL, and there was a fight in that company and a big split.
Weidman: Actually, for a long time AOL was for consumers and CompuServe served business. CompuServe is still in business, and they still have the computer farm outside of Columbus, and they provide services to DOD mostly and major federal agencies. And that’s how we first computerized VVA’s database. Every single contract they got, they wanted their own servers. Right? So, there was excess capacity all over the place. So our stuff was stored in excess capacity in some of those servers. Mary Stout would enter them. Dan got us a monitor, and Mary would enter online.
Dan Meeks was a Ranch Hand. He had the same job that Jack McManus had.
King: I know it was either ’80, late ’81, or sometime in ’82 that I first heard about Mary Stout and how she was helping the membership of VVA, and she lived in Ohio. I could never figure out how she got connected. I was talking to her, and she said she did most of her stuff in the basement of her house. We were trying to build the membership of Michigan, and there was a big argument over membership cards. We could never get a card from National, and Mary was this white knight: We finally had somebody who could do a membership card. The first membership card I had was something like 1,000, and the next one was like 11,000.
Rowan: That’s because they started at 10,000. And the life members started at one. They presumed that we would never have more than 9,999 life members.
Klein: Well, considering that my 1980 membership card is 2,396...
King: If you look at our Constitution, it says “As read or as passed in November of ’83….” Then it’s been amended for the next thirty-some years.
Keating: Was the Constitution written during the Founding Convention?
Rowan, Klein: Yes, it was.
King: Because if you guys remember, we had so many arguments and fights over what National could do and couldn’t do, what the States could do and couldn’t do, or with the Chapters. And then we all of a sudden decided—or somebody had this brilliant idea—that we could make it three parts: We would make a National part, a State part, and a Chapter part.
If you remember the original Constitution, we had things that you could do at the State but you couldn’t do at the Chapter; you could do in the Chapter but couldn’t do at National. So, we had to go back in 1985 and begin to re-align things, because somebody actually sat down who was either a lawyer or smart or whatever, and said, “This really contradicts what this is saying over here.”
Keating: So, all three were written separately?
King: Basically, it was a hodgepodge.
Rowan: It was just an absolute zoo.
King: I mean the fact that we came out of there with resolutions, the fact that we came out of there with a Constitution—
Devine: And an elected Board.
King: —and an elected Board of Directors and Officers, I think that is a minor miracle.
Rowan: And an elected Board of Directors willing to stand up, because it only took two meetings. At the second meeting we had the whole coup, and it was such a simple coup. We had a meeting in Deering’s room or something.
Devine: I think it was in Jenkins’ room.
Rowan: Maybe it was. Yes. And it was like, “Okay, what are we going to do?” The first order of business is to accept the agenda, so when Bobby gives his agenda, tell him “no.”
Devine: And then they picked me.
King: I was there, by the way. I was not on the Board, but I was there.
Rowan: And I’ll never forget what happened. I thought Muller was going to have apoplexy, and he did his usual vibrating off on his hands. This was just the second meeting! We met every month.
We finally calmed down and came to a meeting of the minds, but it was very interesting. And then after that, it was like, “Okay, Bobby, yeah, you’re the boss, but give us our due. Don’t take us for granted and think you can just waltz in and do whatever the fuck you please.”
King: Although not a member of the elected Board, I still used to come to meetings. Muller just ran roughshod. John might say, “Well, wait a minute, I have an objection.” And he’d say, “No, you’re out of order.” Whatever your problem was, it wasn’t important. So this incident taught him: You know what? You are not the absolute controller here. You will listen to us. I think that really was a turning point—
Rowan: We can outvote you.
King: That was a turning point in the direction of VVA.
Rowan: I remember that the agenda was basically him bringing people to talk to us, but enough already. We need to do things; we don’t need to listen to everybody. I remember we were polite and ended up not changing the agenda too much because we did not want to screw these people who had come to see us. But on the other hand, we basically told Bobby he should plan in advance and get us in the ball game. And I’m trying to remember; I thought we met more often than quarterly. Was it every two months maybe? I don’t think it was every month. I mean, we were paying our own way.
Weidman: From the point of view of staff, it seemed like every single week.
Devine: “They’re always here.”
The conversation continues in the September/October issue.
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