|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Bill Meeks, at 73, is a dynamic man who still works fulltime as a supervisor for a civil engineering firm in the Houston area. He has no immediate plans to retire. “As long as I’m healthy, I’ll keep showing up,” he said.
He has maintained a similar approach to his longtime work with VVA, holding several elected positions at chapter, state, and national levels over nearly thirty years, including six terms on VVA’s National Board and five terms as chair of the Membership Affairs Committee.
Meeks continues to serve as a senior adviser to Membership Affairs, and between that position and his decade as chair, along with roles on many other national committees and task forces, he brings a deeply informed perspective on the challenges of supporting and maintaining membership in an organization like VVA—meaning one that serves a defined group of people who are now, on average, 72 years old.
“Yes, VVA is aging,” Meeks said, “but finding and keeping members wasn’t necessarily easy even when we were all younger.” He noted that a major aspect of that challenge has been simply making potential members aware of the organization.
“I’m a case in point. I was a Marine, Bravo Co., 1st Bn., 27th Marines. I was back home for years before I knew about VVA. I was very happy to discover the organization in 1993, but VVA had already been around for 15 years or so and I’d never heard of it. So right out of the gate, I saw that a big piece of recruiting members is about outreach. It’s getting the word out in our communities. It’s all about public communication.”
When asked about high and low points in working with VVA member recruitment and retention over the years, Meeks said: “Well, there were actually only high points. Promoting and sustaining VVA membership has been a story of constant improvement. Sometimes slow, but always improving.”
Reorganizing at the National Level
Around the time Meeks came aboard as chair of the Membership Affairs Committee in 2001, VVA had hired a new membership director, Bob Thompson. “Bob and I and the Membership staff and committee, along with VVA’s general counsel, the late Mike Gaffney, all worked together to reorganize membership affairs at the national level,” said Meeks.
“Bob had a true gift for looking at the way things operated and understanding where and how to make improvements. Mike would play devil’s advocate with ‘what if’ questions, and Bob and I would work through possibilities and potential pitfalls. We drafted most of the policies that are still in use by VVA today. It was a great working relationship that played a major role in helping VVA grow and build its membership.”
Bob Thompson left VVA in 2006. “We missed him, but we learned from him, too,” Meeks said. “We kept pushing forward and building membership through the 2000s. Much of our productivity rested in the connections we made with the state councils and local chapters, along with creating the tools they needed to maintain membership.” Through Meeks’ ten years as Membership Committee chair, VVA increased membership from 40,000 to some 60,000.
In 2011 Meeks passed the baton to Charlie Hobbs from Chapter 203 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “That’s the second largest chapter in VVA, and they’re very active,” Meeks said. “Charlie had already created a recruitment roadmap for his own chapter and brought great ideas about how to apply those ideas on the national level.”
An Aging Membership Base
VVA continued to do well on the membership front until a few years ago when, as Meeks put it, “We noticed something happening. It turned out that the years were creeping on, and our members were getting older.” Meeks described visits to state council meetings where he greeted old friends in wheelchairs who, as little as a year earlier, were on canes. “And a year before that they didn’t need anything to get around. This process is certainly having an effect on our membership, but of course what we’re looking at is simply a fact of life.”
Meeks noted that an aging membership, coupled with pandemic restrictions, diminished VVA’s ability to connect on personal levels, turning back much of the progress made with membership efforts that took decades to put in place. “No matter how old a person is, it’s hard to conduct business, or even just have a conversation, when you can’t physically meet. Younger folks have the time and energy to bounce back and regroup. It’s going to be harder for our aging vets.”
In that context, Meeks thinks a key challenge will be “getting our members, the ones who are healthy enough, to get back to where they’ll come out and participate.” He noted that many members have not only become accustomed to staying at home but continue to have concerns about the safety of once again mingling in groups. “Many chapters had busy outreach programs going on. They sponsored community activities, they were growing their membership base. Then COVID hit and nearly all of that came to a stop. Meetings went online and the basic effect of all this is your membership stagnates. Then it vanishes.”
Amid these challenges, Meeks said that many chapters “are having a tough time getting people to step up for leadership roles. Some folks have been officers for umpteen years and they’re tired. So that’s another hurdle—maintaining the level of leadership we’ve had, which is critical to getting chapters back into the community and able to recruit new members. But all that brings us to the big question on everyone’s mind: How long can we keep this show going?”
In Meeks’ opinion, the answer is somewhere between five and ten years. “I’ve mentioned some of the issues in play, but basically it’s all about our generational aging. It’s not a mystery. We’re getting old. That’s the way it is.”
Helping Younger Veterans
Although Meeks said he has never favored expanding VVA’s membership to include younger veterans, he places great value on the ways that VVA has helped those veterans—including benefits counseling and dealing with the VA benefits system, helping homeless veterans, building awareness of veterans’ health concerns, and helping individual veterans with legal concerns and appeals issues.
“All those services that VVA has built or supports are available to all veterans, any war, any period of service,” said Meeks, “so I don’t see how changing VVA to extend membership to all vets is useful.” That said, Meeks emphasized how much he’s enjoyed helping younger veterans.
“After all, my son’s one of them. He served two tours in Iraq during 20 years in the Marine Corps. We share information and ideas, and he keeps me apprised of how younger vets look at things and how they see their own legacy.
“We’ve worked hard all these years to realize that ideal and make things a little bit easier for younger veterans. And here’s the thing: If you spend any time with younger vets, they will say, ‘Thank you, Vietnam veterans,’ for they know what VVA has accomplished. They’re grateful for what we’ve achieved and the way we’ve opened doors for the vets that come after us. It’s not lost on them.” Bill Meeks plans to continue doing what he’s done all his life, be it as an engineering supervisor or a longtime VVA leader—keep showing up. “The day will come when I can’t do that anymore,” he said, “but until then, let’s keep this show on the road and make sure we achieve all we possibly can.”
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