October 8 was a brooding day in Tucson, AZ: warm and humid, the sky full of black clouds and thunder. It was the last gasp of a monsoon season that reminded at least a few veterans of storms they had seen in-country half a century before. But still they came—nearly 4,500 people in the space of ten hours. Men, women, and even a few children braved the possibility of a lightning-lashed downpour to honor veterans of the Vietnam War at Tucson’s annual Nam Jam benefit concert.
Nam Jam began in 1986, when the leadership at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base asked members of Tucson Chapter 106 to staff a display at a traveling version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two musicians who were passing through town, both Vietnam veterans, took the occasion to perform at the neighboring community center in honor of the fallen and their families.
That planted a seed, and the next year Chapter 106 invited local musicians to play at a day-long family-style picnic at Gene C. Reid Park. No one had any idea that it would be a recurring event, but, recalls longtime organizer Juan “Sarge” Rodriguez, it was a hit among the members, and they wanted to do it again. The next year more people came, and Nam Jam became an annual fixture, eventually drawing thousands of visitors.
This year marked the 29th anniversary of Nam Jam, and by all accounts it was a success. But time has passed, and the original mission of Nam Jam has changed with it. If the first edition was a party, later ones became commemorations. Now, says Rodriguez, as Vietnam veterans age and pass away, Chapter 106 is making efforts to recruit veterans of the later conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: “We want to see this evolve from Nam Jam to something like Sand Jam and make room for other veterans.”
Trying to get those new veterans involved is a challenge. Their wars are still fresh in memory—and besides, notes Rodriguez, they’re now busy building careers and families in the civilian world. Such people are not joiners, at least not of veterans organizations. Nam Jam offers a prime opportunity to get the word out and recruit among a younger crowd.
“The primary thing for us,” says Chapter 106 President Melvin “Butch” Morgan, “is to make sure that veterans recognize all the programs that are available to help them.” Tucson is home to one of the largest VA hospitals in the country, but many veterans, he says, haven’t been informed of the full range of services the VA offers. Adds Rodriguez: “We want to be sure that everyone knows about the benefits they have coming to them, and we want to enlist new members to help spread the word.”
Putting on Nam Jam involves a great deal of effort on the part of the membership of Chapter 106. There’s the matter of lining up sponsorship from local businesses, then the logistics of getting food and beverage vendors on site. Some members devote themselves to bringing artifacts from the chapter’s museum for display in a field tent, others to manning a separate display honoring Tucson-area war dead. Then there’s getting the chapter’s deuce-and-a-half M35 cargo truck from storage out in the desert into the heart of a busy city, which is easier said than done. “I flew helicopters,” says Chapter 106 member Keith Carter with a grin, “but damn if I can drive this thing.”
The challenges are many, but so are the helping hands. Local biker clubs, many with veterans as members, were on hand to pitch in. Admission to Nam Jam has always been free, but all the same, volunteers were busy throughout the day collecting donations that go to help others in need. One particular target for donations, says Rodriguez, is Esperanza En Escalante, an agency serving homeless veterans that has broken ground for a new facility on the city’s east side. In the last couple of years, Nam Jam has enabled Chapter 106 to donate a few thousand dollars from proceeds to such groups.
Attendance was up this year, for in the end, the threatening storm clouds wandered off after leaving only a few scattered drops on the crowd, chased away by a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band’s Woodstock-evoking hollers of “No rain! No rain!” A larger crowd means more proceeds, and more support for veterans of the conflicts of the last half-century, and more getting the word out—all the things, in other words, that Nam Jam, soon perhaps to be Nam Jam/Sand Jam, has evolved to do.
Toward sunset, Butch Morgan, visibly tired but also visibly pleased, looks out on the crowd and smiles. “Another Nam Jam,” he says. “It’s been a good day.”