BY BOB HOPKINS
“Volunteer” is a funny word.
Conrad “Connie” Steers was hot and tired as Bravo Company headed back to LZ Debbie where the 4/21st of the 11th LIB troopers would try getting some shuteye. It was another day in the ’Nam, 3-1/2 months into his tour and 2-1/2 months before a sniper would end his stay in Southeast Asia.
“We came across a tunnel,” Steers recalled. “The Captain looks around and sees all 5’9”, 130 pounds of me and hands me his .45 and a flashlight and says, ‘You’re going down there.’”
Ron Adams, assigned to the battalion as a journalist after having served in the field as a grunt, happened to be with his old unit that day. “Connie was crazy,” Adams said. “The Captain pointed at the tunnel, a couple of grenades were thrown in, and Steers dove in. Two NVA were killed and Connie comes out with a couple of weapons and one of their helmets. I wound up with it and kept it for some time. We gave it back to him at our reunion in 2006, exactly 36 years to the day that he came out of that tunnel with it.”
“I guess I volunteered,” Steers shrugged.
There’s not quite the ambivalence to that term as Steers winds his way through the tunnels connecting buildings at the Northport VA Medical Facility on Long Island in New York. He’s transporting a patient for a medical appointment, running the shuttle vehicle, just as he’s done for some time. At 290 pounds, he’s not quite the svelte tunnel rat he once was.
“The only tunnels I fit through now are the Lincoln and the Midtown,” Steers laughed. He admits to having some claustrophobia, the result of a partial tunnel collapse near the end of his tour in ’Nam.
Connie Steers was born on August 26, 1949. He was one of three children. Both parents worked to support the family. His father was a blue-collar brewery worker. Connie attended East Meadow High School on Long Island and graduated in 1967. “Back then, if you graduated from my school, you either went to jail or the military,” he joked. “I worked in the Post Office until I got drafted in May 1969.”
After being shot in the leg by a sniper in June 1970, Steers went to the 91st Evac, then to Japan, and finally to a medical facility in Virginia. After a ten-month recovery, he was discharged and returned to civilian life. He married his sweetheart, Cherie, in 1971 and resumed his employment in the Post Office, where he remained until he retired 34 years later.
Steers fought some of the demons that beset many of his comrades. He turned to helping his fellow veterans and joined VVA back in the early days.
“It wasn’t originally intended as a membership organization. It was set up as an advocacy group,” Steers said. “We had no money and little organizational experience. What we did have was commonality of service and shared experiences from ’Nam. I felt a lack of that in the other veterans organizations.”
Steers immersed himself in VVA, joining Chapter 11 in Suffolk County. There he met Jerry Klein. In a recent interview, Klein, VVA’s Florida State Council president, described Steers as “one of the old stalwarts. There’s no ego involved with Connie. He has attended every National Convention and cares as much about vets as anyone I’ve known. He stays out of the limelight. He once ran for State Council president in New York and lost. Instead of sulking, he volunteered for any project that would help the Council.”
Steers was a co-founder of Chapter 82 in Nassau County. He served as president from 1984-88 and treasurer from 1988 to the present day. Joe Ingino, the current president, has known Steers for 15 years. “When we list committees, I ask Connie to just list 15 or 16 of those he’s on,” Ingino joked. “You can’t ask more from a guy than what Connie does for veterans. He’s always up at Northport. He’s the one that got me involved in veterans’ issues. He’s helped with minority recruiting for VVA and is involved in the Purple Heart Association.”
In 1984, Steers helped found the Vietnam Veterans Resource Center in Hicksville, New York. “We got funding through the New York legislature” he said. “The county now helps with the funds.”
Steers’s commitment to helping his fellow veterans rubbed off on his wife, Cherie. She joined VVA as an Associate Member in 1982. She has attended all but three National Conventions since then. “I liked the idea of it all being one,” Cherie said. “I’m the only original Associate left in the Chapter. The guys treated us like we were one with them. It was a family affair.”
Cherie serves as the New York representative of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America. She enjoys volunteer work, serving on several Chapter committees and at the Northport VAMC. She is involved with the Chapter’s Christmas party for special-needs children at the Hagedorn Little Village School in Massapequa, N.Y., and serves as a representative on the VA Volunteer Services council at Northport. She also volunteers in the Northport office.
Joe Sledge, public affairs officer at Northport, recently attended a Chapter 82 meeting where he watched Cherie help organize a fundraising spaghetti dinner for a needy individual. “She’s a very giving person,” Sledge said.
VVA National President John Rowan has known Steers since 1980. “Connie has been in the trenches since the beginning,” Rowan said. “He’s a classic worker bee, a team player. He’s a good guy and serves on several national committees. He attends many of the National Board meetings, paying his own way.”
But the one place Steers feels most at home is the VA facility at Northport. He had done some previous volunteering at the St. Albans Naval Hospital.
Lynn Mott, the VAVS officer at Northport, calls Steers “a great asset. He drives the vets around in the shuttle and volunteers on the wards. He attends special meetings. He and Cherie are always willing to help.”
Sledge has known Steers for ten years. “Connie is inspirational,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy who won’t say no when it comes to vets, any vet. He brings canteen books for guys on the wards and always puts others ahead of himself. He’s not reluctant to tell us where we can improve things.”
When you talk to Steers about Northport and the veterans on the wards, he tears up easily. “There are guys up there who will never get out,” he said. “Their families often forget about them. They just need to talk to someone. I don’t care which war they’re from. They’re all vets. They’re my guys.” He puts his head down for a few seconds to compose himself. You can see his commitment.
Steers served his country in Vietnam, bearing physical and mental scars from that conflict that have healed slowly. A great part of that recovery has come from helping his comrades. As John Rowan said, he is a “worker bee,” selfless in his dedication.
“I’m just a grunt,” says Steers, but it’s a tag he wears with humility and with pride.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact VVA's VAVS National Representative Judith McCombs at firstname.lastname@example.org