|Vietnam Veterans of America|
The numbers are in. And once again, VVA’s membership has reached record levels. After hitting an all-time high of 87,950 at the end of April, the number topped 88,000 on June 1.
“And we’re aiming for 89,000 by November and the National Convention,” said Dick Southern, who took over as chair of VVA’s National Membership Affairs Committee from Charlie Hobbs in 2019. During Hobbs’ eight-year chairmanship—and that of his predecessor, VVA National Secretary Bill Meeks, who held the job for ten years—membership numbers moved up steadily every year, hitting the milestone of 75,000 for the first time in 2015.
Dick Southern, a California native, has been an active VVA member since the mid-1990s when he joined Sonora Chapter 391 in rural Tuolumne County, in the Golden State’s Sierra Nevada Mountains not far from Yosemite National Park. In 1996 he was elected the chapter’s secretary. Southern also serves as Chapter 391’s membership chair.
That’s in addition to the many other VVA leadership positions Dick Southern has held in the last 26 years. In 2001 he was appointed by then-President Tom Corey to the Board of the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund (now known as the Veterans Support Foundation), the nonprofit that supports VVA’s Service Officer Program, among other things. He later served as VVAF secretary, and he has sat on the VVA National Veterans Benefits, Membership Affairs, and Resolutions Committees. Southern served a term as President of the California State Council from 2002-04, was elected to the National Board of Directors as Region 9 director in 2007, and has held that position ever since.
NEW YEAR’S GREETINGS
On January 13, 1966, less than two weeks after he’d received his draft notice in the mail on New Year’s Eve, Dick Southern—who was 23 years old, married, and working full time for the U.S. Postal Service in San Jose, California—was inducted into the Army. With nearby Fort Ord’s training operations closed due to a meningitis outbreak, he was shipped to Fort Gordon in Georgia for Basic Training. Then came Combat Medic AIT at Fort Sam Houston.
His first duty assignment was at Fort Carson, Colorado, with the 1st Medical Battalion, attached to the 5th Infantry Division. “We supported the 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry, Mechanized,” he said. “Basically, we were kind of a MASH unit. We had operating tents, triage, the whole works. We went out in the field with them once a month, set everything up, made sure it was working, and then took it all down, put it back in the warehouse, waited three weeks, and did it again.”
Twice Southern received orders to ship out, but both times the orders were rescinded. He spent the rest of his time in the Army at Fort Carson—with a short detour to attend NCO Academy at Fort Riley in Kansas. “I came back to my unit as an instructor,” he said.
While he was at Carson, Dick’s wife Carol, a dental technician, applied for and got a job as a civilian employee for the Army and worked on the post. The main benefit from that, he said, was that “I got to live off post.”
After receiving his honorable discharge in January 1968, Dick and Carol went back to San Jose. By the mid-eighties, with the region’s population growing rapidly, they decided to move east. “Too many people,” he said, “so after 45 years basically in San Jose, we moved to the mountains in 1988, and love being here.”
In 1996, Dick Southern saw a notice in a local newspaper about “these Vietnam veteran people having a barbeque at a motel on a lake,” as he put it 25 years later. It turned out to be a Chapter 391 fundraiser. “So we went, met a bunch of guys, had dinner, and on the way home, I said, ‘I kinda feel guilty. We just had a free meal, maybe we should look into hanging out with these folks.’ So I went to a chapter meeting and signed up.”
Dick Southern thinks a lot about getting Vietnam War veterans signed up, and how and why VVA’s membership numbers have been rising steadily in the last 15 years. “A lot of it has to do with the camaraderie,” he said, “people all being together and doing the same thing. That’s part of it.” Plus, he said, Vietnam War veterans are retiring “later and later. It used to be 65, now they’re waiting till their seventies. And that’s our demographic; 72-73 is about the average age of VVA members. A lot of the new people we’re getting now are those who went in in 1973 and ’74, who are starting to retire and they’re finding us.”
Many veterans find out about VVA through the outreach efforts of local chapters that have ongoing recruiting and outreach programs, primarily aimed at those how don’t know that VVA exists. “A lot of us, like myself, didn’t even know about VVA,” Southern said. “It took me from ’68, after I came back, to ’96 to find out about VVA. What happens is, people are involved in their jobs and careers, but once they retire, they start looking around [for activities to get involved in] and once they get start looking on the Internet or read the local papers or see a parade or a chapter doing membership outreach in front of a Walmart, that’s when they find us.”
Some VVA recruiting, he said, “is done through our service officers, another face-to-face contact.” It’s not uncommon for veterans, “once they get their compensation and see what a good job we’ve done for them, to join. Sometimes people say, ‘What do I owe you for getting me this money?’ and the Service Officers say, ‘I can’t take any money, but we’d like you to join the organization.’”
VVA’s membership numbers increased during the pandemic year of 2020, “although we had some trouble,” Southern said, mainly because many people stayed away from personal interactions. “A lot of membership recruitment is done face to face,” he said, “you bring somebody to a meeting or you talk to folks wherever the outreach is and you get them to sign up, and that happened much less frequently during COVID.” Nevertheless, he said, “recruiting efforts were going on despite the social distancing requirements. In April 2021 we had 248 new members and 105 had passed away. So we continued to recruit more new members than the number of those who are dying. In fact, we’ve never had a monthly minus number. Age is getting to us, too, and it’s been a challenge, but the stream of people coming in is still there.”
Membership, Southern said, “will continue to grow. We’re still a viable organization. If we survived 2020 as an organization—and great kudos to the leadership for doing that—we should be able to survive until the last person turns out the lights.
“We’re going to be viable for a long time.”
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