BY MICHAEL KEATING
“It’s work, for sure,” said Dave Simmons, VVA’s West Virginia State Council President and host of the April 16-19 Region 3 Conference in Charleston. “But it’s about family; it’s really a big family reunion.”
On Friday, April 17, the conference was gaveled into session. A banner declaring it the George C. Duggins Conference was unveiled by Simmons and Region 3 Director Bruce Whitaker. A letter from Duggins’ widow, Blanche, expressed her pride and gratitude for the honor bestowed on her husband, VVA’s president from 1997-2001, and her regrets at being unable to attend due to the birth of a grandchild.
The preceding day, an All-Veterans Parade had marched down Charleston’s Court Street in front of the Conference hotel. Organized by Huntington Chapter 949’s Ron Wroblewski, Joe Wilson, and Dave Graham, the parade featured ten of VVA’s eleven West Virginia chapters, most of the other state VSOs, one of the state’s oldest veterans, and the crack St. Albans Marine Corps JROTC.
A highlight was Chapter 949’s float, which featured a huge blow-up of Lee Teeter’s famous Reflections print. Last year, the chapter was late in applying to enter the Ironton, Ohio, Fourth of July Parade. Although officials told him he was too late to be considered for entry, much less competition, Joe Wilson rushed to Ironton armed with photographs. “Do you want to be judged?” was their immediate response. And they were: the Huntington chapter’s float was awarded the Grand Marshal Award. “Grand Marshal is top dog,” said Wilson with satisfaction. “We’ve made some changes since then. We’ll see if we can’t grab it again this year.”
The Conference mornings began leisurely over complimentary breakfast provided by Charleston’s Embassy Suites, and the evenings were rounded out by manager’s receptions with an open bar. Conversation was both easy and lively; the camaraderie, warm and welcoming.
During the Opening Ceremonies, after the posting of the flags and opening remarks, Andy Clark of Logan County conducted the POW/MIA Missing Man remembrance, the empty table set for five. The observance was solemn and dignified; nevertheless, Clark worried later that it could have, should have, been better. “But Dad always told me it’s like church,” he concluded. “The more you do it, the better you get.”
Two days of seminars followed. April Lewis of the Alzheimer’s Association presented an overview of the disease and its manifestations. Although the presentation was directed primarily at caregivers—VVA members with ailing parents—Lewis also described research that tentatively linked PTSD to Alzheimer’s.
Other seminars followed on AVVA membership retention, Vet Centers, and strategies for problem gamblers—a session that followed an outing to a nearby casino.
North Carolina’s Paul Crowell, with help from Jim Blount, offered a presentation on CPR and health care common sense. Linda Lenox discussed the nation’s veterans’ cemeteries. Don Overton provided an overview of Veterans of Modern Warfare. “We left a toxic battlefield,” he said. “Now, we’re dying at an alarming rate.” He described the evolving relationship between VVA and VMW as a “win-win.” Similarly, Overton described the VMW-AVVA relationship, which may result in shared service reps, as a way “we can support those who have supported you.”
During a two-hour AVVA Round Table, National President Elaine Simmons fielded a wide range of questions. When asked about the relative powerlessness of VVA members when they join AVVA, she explained that it wasn’t just a matter of turnabout. Rather, the IRS insisted that AVVA could not be a mere shell, stacked with VVA members ready to take over the organization.
The recent AVVA Board decision not to provide copies of The VVA Veteran to its members was also discussed. AVVA needed the cash reserves to show the VA that it could assume the responsibilities of a service rep program. Eliminating the magazine helped create those reserves. A lively discussion followed in which short-term methods of working around the problem were aired. It was agreed that the AVVA mailing list would be purged of households that receive multiple copies of The Veteran.Pennsylvania State Council President Jeff White, on the other hand, is asking his chapter presidents to identify and subsidize those AVVA members—primarily widows—who will not otherwise receive the magazine.
West Virginians are rightfully proud of their Veterans Memorial on the Capitol grounds. It’s a round, neoclassical structure divided into four parts, each commemorating one of the major wars of the twentieth century. Inside are listed the names of all the West Virginians who died in those wars. The state has the highest per capita death rate. Members of VVA converged there Friday for a solemn wreath-laying.
In the seminars, Bruce Whitaker provided a brief overview of the tax code as it affects VVA chapters. The following day, he presided over a two-hour review of proposed Constitution changes. Current officers and Board members—John Rowan, Barry Hagge, Tony Catapano, Charlie Montgomery, and Whitaker—also responded to members’ questions. Hagge said that the transition of product sales to Medals of America came about because of large losses by Veterans Collectibles. Other candidates—announced or prospective—at the Region 3 Conference included Paul Crowell, Jerry Yamamoto, Sandie Wilson, and Larry Frazee.
An AVVA raffle featured prizes that highlighted the products of Region 3 and its states, including good West Virginia wine and excellent Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. Held under the auspices of the West Virginia State Council, the raffle will help fund the AVVA West Virginia State Rep, Mary Jones. “We all help each other,” she said.
Saturday night, the George C. Duggins Region 3 Conference ended with a banquet. Many awards were given, and Lori Rankin sang country ballads, many from the Patsy Cline songbook. The guest speaker was Hershel “Woody” Williams, West Virginia’s only living Medal of Honor recipient. Williams talked about passing the torch to Vietnam veterans.
As the event broke up, a well-dressed woman sitting on a bench just outside the front door spoke into her cell phone: “Let me forewarn you,” she breathed. “There are three hundred Vietnam veterans here.”