|Vietnam Veterans of America|
At first, Charlie Hobbs didn’t even want the job. When VVA President John Rowan asked him to become chair of the national Membership Affairs Committee, “I just flatly refused,” Hobbs said. “I told him I wasn’t qualified.”
Rowan reminded Hobbs that he was, at the time, president of one of the fastest growing chapters in the country—Chapter 203 in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which had fewer than 200 members when Hobbs was elected in 2001, but was already well on its way toward the nearly 900 it has now. Rowan asked Hobbs to at least think about it, saying he was looking to Hobbs to grow VVA’s membership just like he was doing for his chapter.
Hobbs, who sometimes modestly refers to himself as “this old country boy,” thought about it and discussed it with his wife Sharon, who has said of him he’s the kind of guy who will try to recruit the driver of a car with a Vietnam veteran bumper sticker even if it’s at high speed on the Interstate. “I guess I’m just good at running my mouth at recruiting,” he said.
He took the job, starting in 2011, and for the next eight years Charlie Hobbs tried a lot of different things to make growth happen. Not all worked, but enough did. “We had gotten to a point where it wasn’t a stalemate, but it was not growing very fast,” Hobbs said of the national membership numbers at the time. “When I took over, it was in the low 60,000s, and when I left, it was about 84,000.”
Among Hobbs’ first efforts was a recruiting trip to the Howard County Vietnam Veterans Organization’s annual reunion near Kokomo, Indiana. This extravaganza, which is about to mark its 39th year, draws a huge crowd. “About 120,000 Vietnam veterans came to it over the course of a weekend,” Hobbs said. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.
“They’ve got a group of veterans there who bought a small private airport,” he continued. “People fly in from all over. They’ve also got a big circus tent and permanent metal buildings set up, and they have a place where people come in and park rows and rows and rows of campers. They have music all day and helicopter rides, and it was just unreal. I was like a great white shark in the middle of the ocean there. We gave away a lot of literature.”
Hobbs went twice—to the 32nd and 33rd reunions—and also attended a Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association’s convention. “We just started meeting more and more veterans, things skyrocketed, and we started growing and growing the membership,” he said.
A Simple Principle
Essentially what Hobbs was doing was following a simple principle that had served him well as president of Chapter 203: establish and maintain visibility in communities. Get out, in other words, especially to veteran communities, and show a presence. Vietnam veterans doing things in public can be a big recruiting tool among those who have yet to join VVA, he said.
But he also ran straight into the frustrations that he would keep running into during the eight years he was national chair. “I ran across so many potential members who had never even heard of VVA,” he said, the incredulity still evident in his voice. “Here we are almost 50 years later, and they’d never heard of us. These were Vietnam veterans who belong to the American Legion and the VFW, but they had never even heard of Vietnam Veterans of America.”
Hobbs sighed and reflected: “It should have been pushed heavier from national on down to the chapters. I mean, promoting VVA and getting word out. Everything bleeds down from national to the regions and state councils and then to the local chapters, where all your work is done. I’m a firm believer in that. But we didn’t do as good a job as we should have at the national level in the beginning. That was a real frustration, running into Vietnam veterans who didn’t know what VVA was.”
Measures that Hobbs tried that did bear fruit include revising VVA’s membership forms (“I give my wife credit for that,” he said) and reducing membership fees twice. One of the more successful efforts was the creation of VVA Membership Growth Awards for chapters that expand their rolls the most. “That was a good one,” Hobbs said.
Then there were the usual things, such as getting out on holidays and meeting more veterans. “When I took over as national membership chair,” Hobbs said, “going up to Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we got permission—and of course it was like pulling teeth to do some things—but we wound up with only a 10 × 10 tent, which looked like a lean-to to me. I wanted something professional since we are a national organization.
“So we purchased a 10 × 20 tent that was top notch, and we put it up on the Mall near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We met a lot of veterans, even though many of them were already VVA members. We had hundreds and hundreds of veterans coming through there. A lot of them weren’t members of VVA.”
Of the roughly 9 million American men and women who served in the military during the Vietnam War only 88,000 are VVA members. So the pool of potential new recruits remains substantial. To Hobbs, successfully bringing more of them in will be—no surprise here—a function of visibility. “That’s what worked for me,” he said.
For instance, shortly after he became president, Chapter 203 received a donation of an old Huey helicopter, which was put on display. “That really gave us a kick start,” Hobbs said. “People really took notice of us. At one weekend event we signed up 56 new members, and the next year we signed up 64.” Today, the chapter has an honor guard that attends many military funerals in and around Chattanooga, and the chapter regularly plans public events for patriotic and service-related occasions such as Flag Day.
“It’s all about getting out in the community and being proud of what you do,” he said. “Don’t stay inside and have a meeting and just sit down and have a cup of coffee and tell war stories and have a piece of cake. Get out in the community and start doing stuff. Have a presence and you will grow.”
Hobbs credits his chapter’s membership chair (who, unfortunately, recently had to step down because of Agent Orange-related health issues) as instrumental in helping to retain members. How? Essentially by maintaining contact with them as much as possible.
“You need to touch base with the members because if you don’t, after a while, they start to fall to the wayside,” Hobbs said. “So, at the national level, we’ve always encouraged having membership chairs at the chapter level to touch base with members because the chapter is the grassroots of the organization. You need someone at that level who’s willing to do that. If you don’t have someone, it’s going to be hard.”
The good news is that VVA’s membership has continued to grow since Hobbs retired from the national Membership Committee in 2019. But new chapters need attention from their state councils, he said. “If you don’t nudge chapters when you start them, and what I mean by that is give them some guidance and stay with them, they’ll fall by the wayside. I think that’s something the state councils need to do: stay with your newer chapters.”
Hobbs is 73 now. He was 19 when he landed in Vietnam in 1967—only the second time he’d been on an airplane—and served as an MP with the Army’s Americal Division based in Chu Lai. He had enlisted.
“I had tried to find a job after high school,” he said, “but I couldn’t and saw no point in just sitting around waiting to be drafted.” After his tour of duty, Hobbs served another year and a half at Fort Devens, then returned Tennessee, where he eventually started a heating and air conditioning business.
He joined VVA in 1991 in part because of its pledge never to let another generation of veterans—like those of the Persian Gulf War, which had just started—be abandoned by its predecessors. He also liked VVA’s dedication to honor and pride in Vietnam War service.
“I’m proud to be a Vietnam veteran and I’m proud to have helped with membership,” he said. “I’d have liked to have done more, but sometimes you can only do what you can do with what you have. But we did some good things.”
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