|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Northeastern South Dakota is a landscape of glacial lakes and pristine prairies speckled with small, close-knit towns. It’s a place of agriculture and the outdoors, far from big-city hustle and bustle.
While this might sound idyllic, such a scattered population presents a challenge to a VVA chapter. Yet Northeast South Dakota Chapter 1054 has thrived since its 2011 inception. Based in Watertown, a community of just 22,000, it currently boasts around 570 VVA and AVVA members. The chapter received a membership growth award at the 2019 VVA National Convention, and was recently inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.
VVA 1054 began after Founding President D.L. Jerpseth lost a cousin to Agent Orange complications in 2010. To honor his memory, Jerpseth joined Chapter 959 in Sioux Falls, S.D., and alongside its president, Wayne Blake, helped form a new chapter to serve the northeastern part of the state.
Following recommendations in VVA’s chapter start-up kit, informational meetings in Watertown were advertized through public service announcements in local newspapers and flyers. Soon, the fledgling chapter had received more than a hundred membership applications. On May 7, 2011, VVA National President John Rowan presented the Chapter 1054 charter to Jerpseth.
VVA 1054 continues to be one of the nation’s most active and imaginative chapters. Its famously impressive color guard attends all manner of public events, while its tireless fundraising has supported veterans and their families in nine counties for more a decade.
Outreach & Funding
From its inception, Chapter 1054 members have been very visible and active in their communities. This has raised awareness of the chapter and brought in funds through donations that enable its multifaceted support of veterans.
“We’re not just sitting around drinking coffee. We generally have a purpose. We are raising money,” said Bob Frink, Chapter 1054’s treasurer. “Last year we gave out $26,000. And it all goes to veterans and veteran-associated organizations.”
Chapter 1054’s color guard participates in most parades within a 70-mile radius of Watertown. Members attend area gun and farm shows to recruit and solicit donations. On Flag Day they distribute American flags outside local businesses. Chapter 1054’s signature and most lucrative fundraising event is its annual Elk Raffle for the chance to go elk hunting in the Coteau Hills.
“When we get together, the first thing we’re thinking is, okay, now we did this, what do we do next?” said Phil Braeger, a former 1054 president and current board member.
Communication and media relations have been central to 1054’s success. Braeger appears on a monthly radio show, along with representatives of other local veterans groups, on Watertown’s KXLG, and the chapter’s activities are regularly covered in local newspapers.
“There are several [recruitment strategies],” said Frink, who served in Vietnam in the Army’s Americal Division as a forward observer and executive officer. “Communication is the single biggest.”
To keep members engaged, the chapter produces a bimonthly newsletter that’s mailed and emailed. Robocalls precede meetings and events. The chapter’s website is updated frequently, and it posts birthday cards, thank-you notes, and sympathy cards.
Service to Veterans
Chapter 1054’s service to veterans is both its purpose and one of its best recruiting tools. Keeping its overhead minimal—using an Elks Lodge for meetings rather than maintaining its own place, for example, and not paying mileage—means that almost all money raised goes directly to help veterans and their families.
“We take in one dollar, and about 95 cents goes back out, because we keep nothing for ourselves except just our operating expenses,” said Braeger, whose 16 years as an Army officer included Special Operations tours in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Chapter 1054 distributes gift cards to veterans in need. In 2020 that amounted to about $17,000. It provides an honor guard for more than forty veterans’ funerals annually, and also successfully lobbied, alongside the South Dakota Veterans Council, for a state stipend toward related costs.
“We do funerals for all veterans,” said Dennis Solberg, Chapter 1054’s membership chair. “We’re well known for doing an excellent job.”
The chapter has provided temporary accommodation for homeless veterans, and has helped veterans’ widows, as well as active-duty military personnel and their families.
“When we started out working with giving away funds to help needy veterans in every county, that’s when things really started rolling,” said Braeger. “After the first year or two, when people saw that’s actually what happened, that’s when they really started to join in earnest.”
Back when VVA offered 1- and 3-year memberships (and when a life membership was more costly), Chapter 1054 would contribute to the cost of life memberships to encourage long-term commitments from members. Now that VVA has only life memberships, 1054’s retention focus is on encouraging active participation from as many members as possible.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has meant making board meetings accessible via Zoom, which the chapter intends to continue doing. With members in 22 states, plus snowbirds who depart during South Dakota’s harsh winters, such technology helps keep veterans engaged even at great distances.
Prior to the pandemic, 1054’s meetings were attended by 90-100 people, about 20 percent of its membership. The annual summer picnic and Christmas party attract up to 140 guests.
“One thing that I think we do that most other veterans’ organizations don’t is we invite spouses or girlfriends to come to meetings,” said Solberg, who served three Blue Water Navy tours off the coast of Vietnam. “That way, they feel a little more in-tune and up-to-date on what’s going on.”
Thanks to careful planning and the sheer energy of its core membership, none of the chapter leaders interviewed could recall a single 1054 initiative that wasn’t successful.
Braeger offers this advice to prospective VVA chapters struggling to get off the ground:
“The first thing to do is to make a decision: Are they social clubs, or are they a service club that’s going to service veterans. And you’re not going to do it in the 30 minutes or 45 minutes you have at your meeting. Some of us put in probably closer to 20 to 25 hours a week.”
Good leadership is also vital to a chapter’s success in consistently setting and achieving goals.
“If you start to stagnate, you’re gonna have a problem,” Frink said. “We’ve got a very cohesive group. But when we meet as a group, it’s business—it’s not a social club.”
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