|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Dedicated to the Cause
Westchester County, New York, Chapter 49 has grown steadily since its founding forty years ago. Today, the chapter has more than 340 members. The chapter, located north of New York City in the Hudson Valley, is heavily involved in helping formerly homeless veterans transition into stable accommodations and employment, as well as providing scholarships to children and grandchildren of veterans. It also has commissioned several veterans memorials and founded a veterans museum.
One name almost synonymous with Chapter 49 is Executive Director Dan Griffin. He has been a driving force in the chapter since soon after its 1982 inception and has served several terms as president.
“Dan has devoted his professional life after Vietnam to veterans’ needs,” said Chapter 49 President Bob Jordan. “He’s the core of the chapter because of his knowledge having worked with so many veterans and just soaking up what their needs and their stresses are.”
By day, Griffin works as a Veteran Service Officer for the Westchester County Veterans Service Agency, insuring that veterans and their dependents receive the VA benefits they are entitled to. It was in this capacity that he first met Jordan, a 1st Cavalry Division platoon leader in Vietnam in1969-70, and invited him to join the chapter.
Like countless other Vietnam War veterans, he was shunned by the old-line veterans service organizations after he came home from his 1968 Vietnam War tour of duty as a 1st Cav squad leader.
“At one chapter meeting, there were 81 guys,” Griffin said. “And I said, ‘Raise your hand if you tried joining [other veterans’ organizations] and were thrown out.’ All 81 hands went up. So, I said, ‘Well, that’s why Vietnam Veterans of America was formed.’”
Chapter 49 supports and honors veterans of all eras. For some 30 years, they have been providing formerly homeless veterans with kitchen kits, which typically include dishes, silverware, a toaster, and coffee maker; and bathroom kits with towels, bathmats, shower curtains, and the like. If needed, the chapter will even pay a veteran’s security deposit.
To help homeless veterans get back into the workplace, Chapter 49 has offered computer classes, although demand for them has waned as younger veterans have become increasingly computer literate. Griffin said that on two occasions he has run into alumni of the chapter’s computer course in professional positions made possible by the training they received.
Chapter 49 has also covered travel expenses for formerly homeless veterans to commute to school or a new job, including two who learned to become truck drivers and today are driving trucks for a living. The chapter also awards six $1,000 higher-education scholarships each year to the children and grandchildren of veterans.
“When the chapter votes to help an outside entity, it’s fully vetted and discussed. And it’s the chapter’s decision,” said Jordan, whose civilian career in broadcast journalism included returning to Vietnam in 1985. “It’s not just a half-dozen guys sitting in the front row facing the membership at meetings. It’s a collective decision.”
THE LASDON PARK MEMORIAL, TRAIL OF HONOR, AND MUSEUM
Just five years after its formation, in 1987, Chapter 49 commissioned a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Lasdon Park in Katonah, New York. It’s made up of three seven-foot bronze statues that depict a soldier carrying a wounded comrade with a nurse reaching out to help them. It was the first Vietnam veterans memorial to include a statue honoring a woman.
Nearby, a flagpole is set into an obelisk inscribed with the names of 217 servicemembers from Westchester County who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, along with the names of the eight American nurses who lost their lives during the conflict.
“We wanted to pay homage to the nurses because we all have this affinity for them,” Griffin said. “The bottom line is that they saw more blood every day than we did.”
In 1997, Chapter 49 added a quarter mile Trail of Honor leading up to its Vietnam Veterans Memorial, comprising 12 stone cairns displaying busts of troops from every major American conflict, from the Revolutionary War through the first Iraq War. Two years later, the chapter opened the Westchester County Veterans Museum in Lasdon Park’s former caretaker’s cottage. The facility includes photographs, documents, artifacts, and memorabilia pertaining to Westchester County residents who served with U.S. forces in wartime.
“I met a guy who was a prisoner of war in Germany [during World War II],” Griffin said. “He helped plan the Great Escape. He made a camera that used no film and no lenses, and he secretly took pictures of the camp. We have a replica of that camera.”
Naturally, all these projects cost money. The kitchen and bathroom kits that Chapter 49 provides to formerly homeless veterans cost around $27,000 a year. The chapter relies on donations including bequests, corporate donations, and cash contributions donated at parades and other events in a jug the chapter created for that purpose.
“We used to call it the ‘conscience jug,’ because people felt bad about how they treated us when we came home, so they put money in our jug,” Griffin said. Chapter 49 also sells hats and pins at events and has organized fundraisers, including a car raffle.
Griffin said that Chapter 49 meetings are productive, brotherly, and fun. He attributes much of the chapter’s success to tireless daily outreach and attention to detail. For example, a thank you letter he sent to a donor for a $25 gift, explaining how the money would be spent, led to other, larger donations, and the donor leaving the chapter more than $800,000 in her will.
“Wherever we go, we have applications, and we talk to guys,” said Griffin. “If you see somebody with a bumper sticker or hat and you know he’s a Vietnam vet or just a veteran in general, we let them know who we are and what we do.”
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