Vietnam Veterans of America
To a lot of people, a job is a paycheck—a necessary means of supporting yourself in a world that hands you a bill for something at almost any opportunity. To others, it’s a calling or a passion that has to be satisfied, and that, in turn, is immensely satisfying.
Then there are the rare people like Deborah Williams, for whom one particular job has been all of the above and yet a great deal more. “It’s like family,” she said, trying to describe what it’s been like to work for VVA for more than two decades. “It becomes part of you.”
She had no idea that would happen.
Williams, VVA’s longtime finance director, had worked other jobs before coming to VVA in 1996. But no prior experience in her career compares with her time at VVA, which, to listen to her tell it, has been nothing short of life-changing mainly because of the people.
“I just can’t say enough about everyone I have met and worked with,” she said. “What they’ve been through and all they’ve overcome, they’re amazing. I just think they are all heroes.”
Williams was born and raised mainly in Washington, D.C., occasionally living with her grandparents in South Carolina. The Vietnam War was in full swing, but all she really knew about it was what she read or heard in the news. That, and the fact that no one she knew wanted anything to do with it.
Two of her cousins—about her age, and always “a lot of fun,” she said—did go. At a family reunion after they returned, she saw them. “One was very strung out on drugs, and the other drank a lot,” she said. “They had changed. Our opinion as a family was the war had messed them up. But I had no clue why, and they didn’t want to talk about it. In fact, they didn’t even want people to know they’d gone to Vietnam.”
The only other war veteran she knew was her father, who had fought in Korea as a young man. Sadly, he, too, had succumbed to the familiar narrative. “He was an alcoholic,” Williams said, “and I never knew why. He never talked about it. Nobody talked about it.”
In 1996 she was managing a Blockbuster video rental store when a colleague told her he was about to take a job elsewhere, and asked her to come with him. “I had a daughter in school, and my hours were crazy—late at night, early in the morning—not very conducive for raising a family,” she said. “He told me about this organization, Vietnam Veterans of America, and that he and I together would run product sales for them.”
She had never heard of VVA. But the hours were better and the work sounded interesting.
“I saw all this memorabilia, all these pins, and taking orders over the phone for them,” Williams recalled. “And then I saw a poster of Bruce Springsteen, and thought, Bruce Springsteen’s one of the biggest names on the planet, and this organization has something to do with him? Wow!”
She got to know many Vietnam veterans simply by talking to them while taking their orders. But the big transformation of her knowledge and understanding of the war and the men and women who fought it was rooted in VVA conferences and Conventions she attended around the country.
“With product sales, I got to travel around to all the conferences and got to really know the veterans, and hear their stories, and learn the suffering they went through, the things their bodies were still going through,” Williams said. “Sometimes we’d end up crying together.”
She was learning first-hand what post-traumatic stress disorder really meant. “In the ’90s and early 2000s, we’d be at a conference, and there would be some very intense moments. Sometimes at registration, you’d be checking them in, and they’d be angry. Really angry. But you couldn’t take it personally because even then a lot of them hadn’t dealt with it yet.”
Still, in another way, it was getting very personal, especially when she heard what happened to many after coming back from the war. And it motivated her. “You go out and serve your country, you come back, and you don’t get any kind of gratitude,” she said. “You can’t even get a job. And then listening to their stories and nightmares and the experiences of violence and fear, that’s when I really started to get involved. I wanted to be around them, do what I could for them.”
That desire only intensified after Williams joined VVA’s accounting department, which put her in closer contact with VVA’s daily operations, allowing her to witness how things work at almost all levels.
“Everyone was so passionate, so dedicated,” she said. “I was around a group of Vietnam veterans from all levels of society, and they were fighting for the next generation, not just their own. They wanted to make sure that what they experienced coming home no other veteran ever experiences. They wanted to make sure all veterans get what they deserve.”
Williams said the men and women of VVA quickly made a deep and inspiring impression on her. “These Vietnam veterans I’ve been around, they have really wanted to be out there working to change things, especially the minds of the public, and they surely changed mine. To work around them every day, to get to know them, it became less of a job and I began to think, I’ve got to serve these people!”
And she did. Over the years, Williams joined VVA delegations to lobby Congress, participated in marches, went to The Wall, and more. As she put it, “Anything for the cause.”
Possibly the most meaningful mission she undertook was joining VVA’s Veterans Against Drugs, which visits schools to caution students about using drugs. Not only did Williams lose her father to alcohol and watch her cousins spiral down into drink and drugs, she also lost her sister to an overdose years ago.
“We’d go into classrooms,” Williams said, “and talk about core values, like respect, loyalty, honesty, and give them scenarios on how to respect your teacher, your parents, and yourself, and encourage them not to use drugs or alcohol.”
She wishes she had known years ago what she knows now about the connections between PTSD, anger, drugs, and alcohol. “I think of my father and say, ‘Oh, Dad, maybe I could’ve helped.’ ” One of her cousins never pulled out of his downward spiral before dying from cancer. Fortunately, her other cousin has fared better. “After I started working at VVA, he started going to the VA and getting treatment for his PTSD,” Williams said. “And he’s doing very well.”
In 2017, after twenty-one years of service, Williams received VVA’s highest award, the Commendation Medal, for outstanding service to veterans and her work with Veterans Against Drugs. “That was a big moment for me,” she said, recalling the presentation of the award during the National Convention in New Orleans. “I didn’t know it was coming. When I got it, everybody cheered. It just felt really good that all of them knew me, and that somehow I had touched them in a positive way.”
Having worked her way up from product sales to being VVA’s finance director, Williams recently “semi-retired,” as she put it. She still works part-time “because I cannot let VVA go just like that. Got to wean me off.” Even when she’s not at the office, she still has VVA’s mission in her heart and mind. “I do a lot with my church group, but I mainly gravitate toward everything veteran. Even in my worship, I seek out veterans.”
In her semi-retirement, Williams looks forward to travel. “I want to travel to the VVA conferences. Instead of working all the time, I’ll be able to go to all the seminars and things,” she said. “I have been all over this country because of VVA, and I have friends in every part of this country now. I can literally name a state and I’ve got a friend there.”
But no matter where she may travel, “I will always be in service to the veteran.”
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