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september/october 2007

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VVA’s Convention in SpringfielD

BY MARC LEEPSON

The city of Springfield, Illinois, rolled out the red carpet figuratively and literally for VVA members and their guests at the 13th biennial National Convention July 18-22. “I don’t believe we’ve had a friendlier, warmer reception anywhere,” said VVA President John Rowan. “The entire downtown opened their arms up for us. It was a real kick to see ‘Welcome VVA’ signs in just about every business establishment, ‘Welcome to Springfield VVA’ buttons everywhere, and just plain friendliness from just about everyone you met. The city even renamed the street in front of the hotel ‘Vietnam Vets Avenue’ for the week we were in town. Not to mention the actual red carpet they rolled out for us as we entered the Convention Center for the Awards Banquet Saturday night.”

The Convention’s Opening Ceremonies didn’t begin until Wednesday morning, July 18, at nine, but VVA members began streaming into Springfield late Sunday and early Monday. VVA filled all the rooms in the Convention’s two hotels, the Hilton and the Abraham Lincoln, which sit directly across the street from each other. The Prairie Capital Convention Center, adjacent to the Abraham Lincoln, was the site of the Convention floor, meetings, and the Veterans Mall.

The first event of the week was a solemn ceremony held Monday evening at the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a short drive from the hotels. More than 60 VVA members joined Rowan, National Secretary Barry Hagge, AVVA President Mary Miller, and the Springfield VVA Chapter 534 Color Guard to lay a wreath at the memorial, which is located near the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. The ceremony paid tribute to the 2,972 Illinois residents who served in the Vietnam War and died or are listed as still missing.

“It’s an honor for VVA to recognize the service and sacrifice of those from Illinois who did not come back from Vietnam before we begin the business of our National Convention in Illinois’ state capital,” Rowan said.

Following the ceremony, the Museum of Funeral Customs hosted a reception for those interested in viewing its unique exhibits, including one on the American Military Funeral. Convention registration began at noon on Tuesday, as VVA members continued to arrive in the Central Illinois capital city from across the nation. A group of hearty early-birds took part that morning in the annual VVA Golf Outing, a charity event that supports the VVA national Scholarship Program.

Tuesday’s event that made the front page of The State Journal-Register the next day was not on the Convention agenda. It was a surprise afternoon appearance by folk singer Arlo Guthrie, who entertained VVA members with two tunes, including his signature song which Guthrie rarely plays these days, “Alice’s Restaurant.”

The mini-concert came about at the last minute after VVA’s Conference Planner ran into Guthrie’s manager, and they agreed that he would perform, gratis. A large crowd jammed the mezzanine level of the Hilton to greet Guthrie, who was in Springfield getting ready to play a gig close by. “I didn’t expect this to happen,” he told the crowd as he strapped on his acoustic guitar and harmonica harness. “I’m just passing through town, but I’m delighted to be here.”

Guthrie said it had “been a while,” since he’d performed the “particular song” he was going to sing, so he would “just try to get through one verse.” It “all started,” he said, “about 42 Thanksgivings ago,” reminding the audience of Vietnam veterans that the song was about how he got out of the draft. “I know this is a long song,” he said. “But as my father said, ‘If you can’t be great, it’s better to be long.’” The father in question would be the legendary Woody Guthrie.

Arlo Guthrie got through that one verse, then did the entire tune and had VVA members singing the last chorus along with him. The second song, “When a Soldier Makes It Home,” he said, was written during the Russian war in Afghanistan but deals with issues familiar to Vietnam veterans. The chorus resonated particularly well: “Halfway around the world tonight/In a strange and foreign land/A soldier unpacks memories/That he saved from Vietnam/Back home they didn’t know too much/There was just no way to tell/I guess you had to be there/For to know that war was hell”

The Opening Ceremonies, for the first time in VVA Convention history, featured performances by two big national acts: Big & Rich and Lee Greenwood. Country rockers Big Kenny Alphin and John Rich opened the show with a rousing acoustic rendition of their big hit, “Eighth of November,” which pays tribute to the 173rd Airborne troopers who fought in a particularly vicious battle on November 8, 1965. Following that, Niles Harris, the former 173rd trooper who inspired the song, took to the stage to greet the delegates and emphasize the commitment that Big & Rich have to honoring Vietnam veterans.

After members of VVA Chapter 534 from Springfield presented the colors, the St. Andrews Society of Central Illinois Pipe and Drum Corps marched through the hall offering a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” in honor of Vietnam War POW/MIAs. Lee Greenwood then performed his hit, “God Bless the U.S.A.”

Other highlights of the Opening Ceremonies included a video tribute to long-time VVA leader Randy Barnes; VVA President John Rowan making his entrance inside a Vietnam War era deuce- and-a-half; presentations of the President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts to Big & Rich and to Lee Greenwood; welcoming remarks from Springfield Mayor Timothy J. Davlin; and a rousing Keynote Speech by two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Clarence Page, who was drafted into the Army in 1969 and served as an Army journalist with the 212th Artillery Group at Fort Lewis.

Page urged the delegates to continue to live up to VVA’s motto “In service to America.” The Vietnam War, he said, “did not have a defined end, as your service does not have a defined end.” Arm “yourselves with information,” he said, especially when dealing with the VA. “I don’t care if you’re liberal or conservative or somewhere in the wobbly middle,” Page said. “Believe in something. It’s our right and our privilege as Americans and also our duty.” He ended his speech with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We all have a task. Let us go out and do it with divine dissatisfaction.”

The 626 delegates got down to business on Wednesday afternoon, debating a series of resolutions and proposed VVA Constitutional Amendments. The most contentious issue was a proposal to open full VVA membership to the newest generation of veterans. Feelings ran strong on both sides of the issue. In the end, the proposed Constitutional Amendment was soundly defeated by voice vote. “I think,” one delegate said, “that Iraq War veterans should cast their own shadow and not walk in our shadow.”

On Friday, the delegates heard from Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and from VA Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield. Filner promised that his committee would work especially hard on Vietnam veterans’ issues, in part to honor the work of recently retired long-time VVA advocate Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), who made a brief appearance before the delegates.

The VVA awards were presented during Convention business breaks on Thursday and Friday. Washtenaw County, Michigan, Chapter 310 in Ann Arbor took home three honors: Member of the Year (John Kinzinger), Chapter of the Year, and Chapter Newsletter of the Year for chapters with under 200 members (The 310 Dispatch). The other VVA award winners were: Kenneth Seabron, Incarcerated Member of the Year Cherie A. Steers, AVVA Member of the Year The Florida Recon Report, State Council Newspaper of the Year Shoulder to Shoulder, Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois Quad Cities Chapter 299, Chapter Electronic Newsletter of the Year Between The Lines, Chapter 20, Rochester, New York, Chapter Newsletter of Year for chapters with more than 200 members Allen Manuel, VVA Region 7 Director, received the organization’s highest honor, the VVA Commendation Medal.

Several hundred attended a moving POW/MIA ceremony in front of the Hilton on Friday morning at 7:00 when a VVA plaque was unveiled on the hotel’s flagpole that flies the POW/MIA flag. The ceremonies also included a solemn reading of the names of all those Illinois residents listed as missing at the end of the Vietnam War. Voting began at 8:00 in the VVA national elections, which were once again supervised by the League of Women Voters. John Rowan, Jack Devine, Barry Hagge, and Alan Cook all were re-elected. Newly elected Board member John Neuman of Oregon was the lucky winner of a vintage white Corvette raffled off by the Illinois State Council.

The Convention’s formal business ended with the retiring of the flags on Saturday morning. At a little after noon, hundreds of delegates and AVVA members (who were holding their biennial meeting during the Convention) lined up on the Hilton mezzanine for an autographing session. Each person received gratis DVDs of two celebrated HBO documentaries, Band of Brothers and Dear America. HBO Chairman and CEO Bill Nelson, who fought with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, donated the DVDs and was on hand to meet and greet everyone who stood in line. Nelson signed copies of the DVDs, along with VVA’s Bernie Edelman, one of the producers of Dear America.

After picking up their DVDs, nearly everyone in the line met Wanda Bailey, Susie McIver, and Michelle DellaFave, three of the original Ding-a-Lings, the singer/dancers from the old Dean Martin TV show who would be performing for the first time in 37 years at the Saturday night Awards Banquet. The next stop in line: Nancy Sinatra, who signed photos, posed for pictures, and talked to VVA and AVVA members for more than four-and-a-half hours.

Nelson, a VVA life member, received the Excellence in the Arts Award at the Awards Banquet. The honor was bestowed in recognition of HBO’s extraordinary record of producing top-flight documentaries, feature films, and series that deal with America’s wars and its veterans. Nelson accepted the award, he said, “in memory of the more than 58,000 men and women who served with courage, integrity, and devotion and made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War,” and “on behalf of HBO and our 2,000 employees, especially our artists and talent—the people in front of and behind the HBO cameras—because they best understand that it is through the service and sacrifice of today’s American servicemen and women, and the veterans who came before them, that freedom of expression in America continues.”

Nancy Sinatra, an AVVA member, also received the President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. “I’m looking out at so many faces I kissed today,” she told the huge banquet crowd when she came to the stage. “I kissed half the people in this room today; I enjoyed it very much.” Honored for her visits to Vietnam during the war to entertain the troops and her continuing advocacy work for veterans, she spoke emotionally of her visits to VA hospitals and praised VVA members for the work they do. “From my heart to yours,” she said, “thank you so much. You are the ones who deserve [awards] like this because you are doing the hard work every single day.”

After singing three tunes before the awards were given out, the Ding-a-Lings sat at a table and signed more autographs during the musical portion of the evening. They also joined VVA and AVVA members and guests in dancing to the rocking tunes of the Endless Summer Band, which played till midnight. The band made many friends in the audience that night, beginning with the first bars of their opening number: a hard-rocking version of “We Gotta Get Outta This Place.”

 

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