Vietnam Veterans of America
Given that most Vietnam veterans are probably considering retirement rather than employment or entrepreneurship, it’s perhaps surprising that VVA still maintains an Economic Opportunities Committee (EOC). But a chat with EOC chair of seven years Frank Barry reveals why it remains relevant—and why Barry, who was re-appointed for another two-year term at the 2019 National Convention, is just the man to lead its surprisingly broad mission.
“I think we have to go back to our founding principle, ‘Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,’ ” said USAF vet Barry, talking from his Huntington Beach, Calif., home. “Our reason for being is we’re not going to abandon our younger veterans who are coming into the workforce—and especially those who own businesses.”
In fact, at July’s National Convention in Spokane, it was resolved that the EOC will continue working with younger veterans, handing down the benefit of lifetimes of wisdom even as Vietnam veterans retire from the workforce.
“I feel that all the experience that we have we can definitely pass on to the younger veterans,” Barry said. “And we are still very relevant as who we are and what our mission is.”
The focus of the EOC is on jobs for veterans in the public and private sector, vets who own (or wish to own) small businesses, and identifying training to enhance the quality of life for former service members and their families. Much of the work relates to legislation that might have an impact on these areas.
Although he was not a VVA member before being approached in 2012 by National President John Rowan to chair the EOC, Barry has impressive credentials for the volunteer position. As Barry’s friend for more than fifty years (the two went through basic training and language school together in the mid 1960s), Rowan knew that he had nearly four decades as a vocational trainer and teacher since leaving the Air Force in 1973.
“He thought I would be a perfect fit because for many, many years I worked in employment training with various government agencies,” recalled Barry, who was a multilingual airborne intercept specialist at Da Nang Air Base during the 1968 Tet Offensive. “Even though we were not veteran-focused, there were a lot of veterans I actually worked with in employment training.”
Barry brought appropriate experience to the EOC, having worked with the Job Training Partnership Act and California’s Employment Training Panel (both of which have veterans’ training components), and as a corporate trainer. He also has parlayed skills and experience from his military service into a long and rewarding civilian career, which included teaching English as a second language and workplace English.
Born and raised in Lowell, Mass., Barry enlisted in the Air Force in 1965. After a thirteen-week course in the Vietnamese language, training on top-secret voice-intercept equipment, and survival training, he was stationed first in Yakota, Japan, and then in Okinawa, where he flew in RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over Vietnam, intercepting, recording, translating, and transcribing North Vietnamese Air Force communications. As the conflict intensified, his unit was sent to Da Nang for temporary duty, where they flew night missions. One such stint coincided with the Tet Offensive (“The first time I’d ever been shot at in my life, and also rocketed,” Barry recalled.)
For his second overseas tour, Barry—who also has studied Greek, Hebrew, Indonesian, Spanish, Japanese, Latin, and German languages—was stationed in Athens. Known for his impressions of celebrities such as Ed Sullivan and Lily Tomlin, he spent the last few months of his service as co-emcee of an Air Force talent show (“We fondly referred to ourselves as ‘the poor man’s Bob Hope’ ”), that performed in Spain, Italy, and Turkey.
After leaving the service, he returned to his home state to attend the University of Massachusetts, where he received a B.A. in Theater Arts/English, while simultaneously earning a teaching credential. A particularly brutal Boston winter spurred him to pack up his car and head to sunny Southern California, where he was soon teaching at a Catholic boys school in predominantly Hispanic East Los Angeles. Starting out as an English instructor, he then moved into vocational training, and then teaching ESL and workplace English.
“I know that the cultural sensibility that I got in the Air Force really helped me get on that path in life,” he said. “I fell in love with the Hispanic culture, for instance, and learned everything about it. And that got me into the ESL part of it.”
Soon Barry found himself working with government agencies dealing with employment and training. He accumulated the in-depth understanding of the issues that he brings to his current VVA role. He also has served as treasurer of VVA’s Santa Ana Chapter 1024 since 2016.
“I started out with the Job Training Partnership Act, which later moved into the Workforce Investment Act,” he said. “I was part of that training in those agencies that went out to companies and trained employees, and did English language training, also.”
Enacted into law in 1982, the JTPA includes a provision that directs the U.S. Secretary of Labor to conduct programs to meet the employment and training needs of service-connected disabled veterans, Vietnam era veterans, and veterans recently separated from military service.
“But I never dealt with it on a national level,” Barry said. “And that’s why the Economic Opportunities Committee is so important—because we’ve got members of the committee from all over the United States who bring to it local issues dealing with employment training. And I think my experience with government agencies really brought something to that committee.”
While the committee meets quarterly, its members are in constant communication with one another and with relevant programs and organizations. They also go into their communities to hear the stories and needs of current veterans, and meet with VVA members who might have a role in helping younger vets achieve economic independence.
VVA’s Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs Rick Weidman serves as a special adviser to the EOC. “He is always on the lookout for any kind of legislation and any kind of news from the Department of Labor or Small Business Administration having to do with employment and training and veterans’ jobs,” Barry said.
The EOC has been very effective on Capitol Hill in helping to monitor, support, and sometimes challenge legislative initiatives that might have an impact on veteran employment and entrepreneurship. “As we like to say, it’s VVA that put the ‘forever’ in the Forever GI Bill,” said Barry, referring to the updated Bill that eliminated the 15-year use-it-or-lose-it constraint on Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits for service members.
His committee also has been active in ongoing efforts to keep GI benefits out of the hands of predatory for-profit schools that violate VA standards by making misleading claims about their student outcomes and accreditation status.
The EOC also serves a watchdog role in ensuring—through its relationships with DOL and SBA—that veteran entrepreneurs receive set-asides for federal contracts and the other preferences they’re entitled to. It helps that the committee includes members who own businesses themselves.
The EOC also works with the Department of Labor’s Transition Assistance Program, which helps service members navigate from active duty to civilian life. “It really helps veterans make that transition, which can be very, very difficult,” said Barry.
At the state level, Barry has worked with California’s Employment Training Panel since its inception in 1982, an experience that has proven invaluable in his VVA role today.
“I worked with the UAW Labor Employment and Training Corporation, the training arm of the United Auto Workers,” he said. “We had millions of dollars in funds from the state of California to go into companies and train their employees. That’s what the Employment Training Panel does in California. They want [companies] to stay in the state, which is the incentive for giving training money to them.” Since 2013 the ETP has funded training for veterans in a wide variety of companies.
Locally, Barry and his fellow committee members work with colleges to create veterans programs that are relevant to the modern employment market. For instance, Barry serves as veterans adviser to the North Orange County Community College District Center for Applied Competitive Technologies.
“They had training in welding, communications, and something called flexography, the latest technology in printing,” he explained. “And we had classes go through there, graduate, and get good jobs at very good wages.”
Having just committed to two more years as chair of the Economic Opportunities Committee, Frank Barry says it will be important to maintain its relationships with DOL and SBA, while also remaining responsive to economic and technological shifts that may have an impact on veterans’ prospects for economic independence.
“We’ve been very good at advocacy over forty years, and we have to continue to do that for the benefit of veterans,” he concluded. “And we’ve got to look at what new types of economic opportunities are going to be coming down the line, with the new technologies and everything else, so veterans can take advantage of them.”
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