|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Rolling on in the Motor City
When the Mike Llitch family, which owns Little Caesars Pizza, the NHL Detroit Red Wings, and the MLB Detroit Tigers, among other holdings, purchased the headquarters of Detroit Chapter 9 in 2014 to make way for its new sports arena, the offer was bittersweet.
Displacing veterans from their landmark building was tough for the chapter, which had grown from just eight members in the early 80s to one of the largest VVA chapters in the United States. The group had weathered the tough years of the city’s fiscal struggles, plastered the walls with mementos from members’ tours of duty, and welcomed veterans throughout the Detroit area.
On moving day in 2017, Chapter President Paul Palazzolo captured members’ sentiments about the transition in an interview with the Detroit News: “It’s sad,” he said. “Our kids grew up here, we have a lot of memories here, we partied here, and our camaraderie was built here.”
But he added: “It’s not the end of us. It’s a new beginning for us.”
In fact, the building sale helped solidify Chapter 9’s legacy as a reliable resource for veterans and their descendants, and as a solid community partner for Detroit and the state of Michigan. The chapter established a trust fund, moved into an office nearby, and set about finding new ways to give back.
“Chapter 9 basically is the focal point for all activity in downtown Detroit for veterans,” Palazzolo said. “We work to make Detroit a better place to work, live, and play, and to help veterans. That’s been our focal point, to draw attention to veterans and to make sure they get everything they’re entitled to.”
Among the chapter’s accomplishments:
It’s a far cry from Chapter 9’s early years pinching pennies and struggling to stay afloat.
The chapter traces its humble beginnings to Wayne State University in the 1970s, where Detroit-area Vietnam War veterans had enrolled in classes under the GI Bill. Groups at the school, such as Bamboo Rap and Flight of the Phoenix, came together to offer support and opportunities for veterans dealing with the aftermath of their war experiences. In 1979, eight Detroit-area veterans at Wayne State formed Vietnam Veterans of Michigan. The group then joined VVA and, in late 1980, Chapter 9 was born.
“There was a lot of negativity about Vietnam veterans back then, and we wanted to change that,” said Mark Spooner, one of the founding members. “Our point was to show that Vietnam veterans are more than what the media portrayed us as.”
With no big donor to support its endeavors, the chapter used a variety of fundraising efforts, including selling merchandise and staging concerts and carwashes. Those funds eventually were used to pay for a home for the chapter, a shuttered restaurant in Downtown Detroit that chapter members renovated.
The chapter grew rapidly with support from former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young. Other VVA chapters formed across Southeast Michigan, and in 1985 Detroit hosted VVA’s second National Convention.
What’s next for the chapter as the nation’s Vietnam War veterans' population ages? “I hope that we can continue to do good things in Detroit, but if we don’t get new veterans to join, I don’t know,” Palazzolo said. “In the meantime, I hope that people will look back on our work and say that we made a difference.”
The chapter's website is http://vva9.org
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