Vietnam Veterans of America
A Positive Response to the Pandemic
While VVA chapters nationwide have canceled or postponed face-to-face meetings and fundraising events due to coronavirus lockdowns, Northeast South Dakota Chapter 1054 came up with a positive response to the pandemic.
In April the chapter gave away more than 500 protective face masks sewn by local volunteers to its members, other area veterans and active-duty personnel, and health care workers. They then capped this effort with a moving Honor Guard salute to the staff of Prairie Lakes Hospital and local first responders in Watertown, S.D., on April 22.
“As veterans, we know what it is to serve,” said Chapter President Jerry Denman. “And we want to just make sure that we show our respect and our gratitude for what these people are doing for us.”
Chapter 1054 is based in Watertown, a community of only around 22,000 people. It also serves the surrounding rural population of some 15,000-20,000. Yet 1054 is one of the country’s largest VVA chapters, with more than 500 members (including AVVA). It even has its own 17-passenger bus. This is testament to the chapter’s fervent activity and outreach, and to the demographics of northeast South Dakota.
“We have a pretty wide veterans community in this area,” said the chapter’s deputy secretary, AVVA member Mary Modica. “We’re rural South Dakota; very patriotic, and a lot of people serve in the military.”
Since it was formed in 2011, Chapter 1054 has had a very palpable impact on its membership and the wider veteran, military, and civilian communities.
“The priorities of our chapter have been serving veterans in need—not just Vietnam veterans, but any veteran in need,” said Phil Braeger, the chapter’s senior vice president and its acting president at the time of the mask giveaway. “If necessary, we’ve also looked after and contributed to relief of deployed National Guard members.”
Chapter 1054 helps ensure the welfare of both veterans and active-duty military personnel by distributing gift cards to those in need; helping with expenses for personnel transferring between bases; and even, on several occasions, installing home furnaces—crucial during South Dakota’s brutal winters—for veterans. In 2019 the chapter put more than $23,000 back into its community. The majority of these funds came from its annual Elk Raffle (for the chance to go elk hunting in the nearby Coteau Hills); “drive days” at the Watertown Ford Chrysler dealership; social events; and donations received at parades and special occasions.
One of the chapter’s main goals is to participate in as many veterans’ funerals as possible. Its two Honor Guards—one based in Watertown, the other in Milbank, 45 miles to the northeast—are renowned for their high presentation standards.
“Our Honor Guard is so professional that even the National Guard said these guys are as good or better than anything they can do,” said Braeger, who served for 16 years in the Army in Berlin, the Dominican Republic, and in Special Operations in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Chapter 1054’s mask giveaway was the brainchild of board member Bob Syring and Paula Warkenthien, one of his neighbors in the tiny town of Willow Lake. Using materials paid for with a donation from the nearby Alliance Family Farms, Warkenthien and a dozen other women sewed more than 700 protective masks for use during the pandemic. Emails and robocalls informed members that the masks would be available free of charge outside the Watertown Elks Lodge where, under normal conditions, the chapter meets.
Syring and Denman distributed some 200 masks in 15 different designs, all featuring patriotic red, white, and blue fabrics, to Chapter 1054 members on April 22, while raising around $350 from donations. Others were given to other local veterans, area hospitals, nursing homes, and to the Salvation Army.
As commander of 1054’s Watertown Honor Guard, it was Denman’s idea to organize a six-man salute to the staff of Prairie Lakes Hospital during the 4 p.m. shift change that day.
“Jerry kind of ran with the ball there,” said Syring, who was an Army cryptographer in Vietnam. “He contacted the administrator at the hospital; he contacted the fire chief in Watertown, and it kind of just grew from that.”
Practicing appropriate social distancing and other pandemic precautions, the salute also included a fire engine and ambulance and uniformed first responders. Two teenage brothers, Kasey and Cutler Michalski, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” As acting president at the time, Braeger paid tribute to health care workers and first responders.
“I was talking to one of our VVA guys, and he said, ‘Y’know, I looked over at a couple of ladies over there, and they were crying,’ ” Syring recalled. “It was very emotional.”
As Braeger explained, it’s important for veterans organizations to give back to their communities. Of all the money it raises, the chapter assigns only a minimal amount to its operational overhead (the Elks Club donates the meeting space).
“It wasn’t a very good return from Vietnam, but over these recent years people have tried to respect and pay back for what happened,” Syring said. “And I think it was our turn to turn around and give something to these individuals who put their lives on the line every day, whether it be a doctor, nurse, EMT, a custodial person, [or] office worker.”
While its annual calendar of meetings, events, and fundraising opportunities has been ruined by the COVID-19 lockdown, Chapter 1054 is slowly returning to its usual hyperactive self. Board officers have continued to meet via Zoom, and the chapter’s scheduled April elections were held on May 21 with appropriate social distancing.
“We’ve got a great group of guys. There’s always ideas out there going on about what to do next,” said Denman, who served on the U.S.S. Ranger in the Gulf of Tonkin, 1970-71. “I hope this COVID-19 will go away or slow down, and we can get back to the business of helping our area vets.”
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