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Will the VVA outlive its founding generation?

Vietnam Veterns of America

Photo © Sandie Wilson

Ken Rogge vividly recalls his return from a tour of duty on a fighter-bomber base in Thailand. In 1970, an Air Force transport plane dropped him off at the San Francisco airport, where the staff sergeant was obliged to walk through an angry mob of hollering, spitting war protesters. “There was one of me and twenty of them,” he recalls. “The United States was not a pleasant country for someone serving his country in those days.”

Sandie Wilson was an Army nurse who spent “eleven months, twenty-nine days, and six hours” in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. “It wasn’t easy for anyone–man or woman–coming home from Vietnam,” she says.

Both Rogge and Wilson remained in the military, and in retirement both joined Chapter 310 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, which meets on Wagner Rd. “Our goal is to make sure that no other military veterans get treated the way we were,” Wilson says. “Those were tough years. We knew how World War II veterans had been welcomed home, and our experiences were very, very different.”

Rogge says that his friends and fellow service members who served in Southeast Asia spent decades avoiding any link to, or conversation about, their role in the war. Wilson agrees. “The ‘Greatest Generation’ didn’t take care of us, and the civilians of our generation didn’t respect us,” she says. “When we had problems, they called us crybabies. When we complained of medical issues we believed were the result of chemical exposure in Vietnam, we were called liars. Too many Vietnam veterans suffered–and continue to suffer–from invisible wounds.”

Chapter 310 was formed in 1983 with thirty-five members; now 179 men and women belong, with more joining every month. Any veteran of the armed forces during the Vietnam era is welcome; they don’t distinguish between those who served in Vietnam or elsewhere, believing all military members were in the war together.

Nationwide, the VVA numbers about 75,000. “The war shaped or altered the lives of most of us who served over there,” Wilson says, “and we appreciate the chance to associate with others who understand.”

Between August 5, 1964, and May 7, 1975, more than nine million Americans served on active military duty around the world. Thirty percent of them–2.7 million–went to Vietnam. They were better educated than any previously deployed American military force, and they saw more time in combat. Airlifted in and out of battle zones by helicopter, infantry in Vietnam averaged 240 days of combat a year; in contrast, infantry fighting in the Pacific during World War II averaged forty.

More than one of every eight Americans who went to Vietnam became casualties–58,253 died and 2,338 were classified as missing in action. Another 303,704 were wounded, more than 75,000 of them seriously disabled. And 766 Americans became prisoners of war, of whom 114 died in captivity. “Yet those who lived returned home to abuse and criticism, not to the heroes’ welcome previous veterans experienced,” Wilson says.

The two most prominent veterans’ organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, initially refused to accept Vietnam veterans because they had fought in an undeclared “conflict,” not a war. “So,” Wilson says, “when they turned their backs on Vietnam veterans, we started our own organization.”

In January 1978, three years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam, a cluster of veteran activists knocked on senatorial doors in Washington, asking for help to create an advocacy organization, the Council of Vietnam Veterans. A year later, the council became the Vietnam Veterans of America. “Many veterans complained about the lack of recognition and appreciation,” Wilson says. “They wanted action, services, and programs that would put Vietnam veterans on the same footing as veterans of earlier wars.”

In 1983, local Vietnam veterans met at the American Legion Hall in Saline to discuss forming a chapter of the new national organization. At the time, Wilson says, it was “the only American Legion post that welcomed us.” Several years later, the Ann Arbor VFW also reached out to Vietnam and Vietnam-era veterans, offering them free dues. When the VFW left its downtown building on Liberty St., the new members spearheaded the fundraising and construction of the Wagner Rd. VFW Post 423, where Chapter 310 now meets.

“Gradually, over time, we were accorded a passive acceptance,” Rogge says. “9/11 turned the tide.”

“It was as if the U.S. went through an emotional turnaround, with a new awareness of the horrors of war,” says Tim Driscoll, a VVA member and co-commander of American Legion Auxiliary Post 322 in Saline. “Servicemen in Vietnam fought a very different war in a very different time in American history–and they’ve been forced to bear some burdens no other returning veterans had to shoulder.”

Drafted in 1965, Driscoll was one of the lucky ones: he had orders to ship out to Vietnam and was even seated on a truck ready to leave Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, when a messenger brought him new orders. One hundred days later, he boarded a ship heading to Bremerhaven, Germany, where he served in a tank outfit for seventeen months.

Sandie Wilson volunteered. When the buzz of helicopters sounded in the air over military hospitals in Vietnam in the late 1960s, she was among the corps of nurses and doctors racing from their tents and dining halls to treat wounded servicemen. Wilson was a surgical nurse at three sites: a beach field hospital at Nha Trang, an orthopedic hospital at the Blackhorse Base Camp, and the air base hospital at Bien Hoa, near the mouth of the Saigon River.

She remembers working impossibly long hours treating wave after wave of incoming wounded. More than once at Nha Trang, medical personnel served for three straight days without a break. Wilson treated Americans with devastating wounds, including gunshot wounds to the head, burns, and amputations–images she will never forget. “One soldier was burned over 100 percent of his body. He talked to us for five days before he died,” she says, shuddering at the memory. Knowing his situation was hopeless, she and others arranged for a shortwave radio call to his family, so the soldier could say his final goodbyes.

“There was no military protocol with burn patients initially,” she explains. “We didn’t close wounds; we took off the dead tissue and waited five days, then we removed more dead tissue. Those poor boys who lived to return home had terrible-looking scars for the rest of their lives. But,” she adds proudly, “we made great progress in burn cases. Before Vietnam, a person would die if burns covered more than 35 percent of the body. We were saving people with 80 percent burns. We developed a whole new protocol.”

When her tour of duty ended, her father, a volunteer policeman in Detroit, arranged for a police escort for his daughter’s homecoming, where a “Welcome Home” banner stretched across the porch. After catching her breath, she enrolled in college, earned her bachelor’s degree, and rejoined the Army, retiring in 2002.

Gary Bourdeau can proudly recite both his Selective Service and National Guard ID numbers. Although he never went to Vietnam, starting in 1963, he spent thirty-eight years in the Army National Guard and Naval Reserves while working for Ford. “During Vietnam, I tried to transfer into the regular Army because I’d lost friends over there, and I felt a responsibility to serve in their place,” he says. “But I was refused because my brother was in the Air Force flying over Vietnam.”

He’s devoting his retirement years to serving the men and women of the armed forces, both veterans and those currently deployed, as the service officer for Milan’s American Legion post, a training officer for the Navy Sea Cadet Corps in Monroe, and a commander of the Disabled American Veterans. He also helps spearhead a scholarship program for descendants of MIAs and POWs, works with the Keep the Wheels Rolling Repair Fund for veterans’ wheelchairs, and oversees volunteer visitation services through the VA for veterans in ten Midwestern states.

Bourdeau is also one of 130 volunteers in the Buddy-to-Buddy Volunteer Veteran Program, a peer outreach organization developed by U-M and the Michigan Army National Guard. “This is a cognitive behavioral program for veterans diagnosed with anxiety or depression,” he says. “The idea behind the program is that military service is different from any other human experience, and no one understands the issues facing a service member more than a fellow veteran.”

Local VVA members also provide transportation, counseling, clothing, Christmas gifts, programs, and visits to patients in Ann Arbor’s Veterans Administration Health System, and have raised money for medical equipment, televisions, and a new chapel for that facility. They funded and built the county’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Ypsilanti Township and send care packages to military personnel around the world. They provide peer counseling, job support, and helping hands for returning service members and their families. And they lobby Congress on veterans’ issues, most recently to promote the Toxic Exposure Research Act, which would establish a center to study the effects of toxic exposure in Vietnam and later conflicts–both on veterans and on their descendants.

This past May, members of Echo Company, Reconnaissance Platoon, 9th Infantry Division contacted the Washtenaw VVA with a request to find and visit the grave of one of their own. SP4 William David Gouger Jr. of Ann Arbor served for four months before his death in Long An province in 1969; he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. The Echo Company members and Chapter 310 held a memorial service at the grave, then visited the county Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where Gouger’s name is listed along with those of seventy-five other local men killed in Vietnam.

“Veterans never really leave their war behind,” Rogge says. “Post-traumatic stress can trigger reactions forty years after the war. Hearing a car backfire, smelling petrol, seeing certain colors can instantly bring someone back to a dark time in our lives, in our history. Our goal is to make our fellow veterans realize they are not alone, that they served their country honorably and their service is deeply appreciated.”

The message is spreading. Ten members of Chapter 310 traveled to Lansing in October, when state senator Mike Kowall hosted a “Michigan Says Thanks” ceremony to recognize Vietnam-era veterans, their families, and federal agencies that help them. Two thousand veterans and family members attended.

Despite such long overdue recognition, the VVA’s future is uncertain. Because membership is based on service during the Vietnam era, Rogge points out, it is the only veterans’ organization designed for obsolescence.

“Are there plans for the future of the organization? That’s a good question,” Sandie Wilson says. “Some want to bring in younger veterans, some want to combine with one or another existing veterans’ group, and some say ‘Let’s turn out the lights at the point when we can no longer go on.’

“Right now the turn-out-the-lights group seems to speak with the loudest voice. But maybe they’ll come to their senses. There will always be a need to advocate for our servicemen and women.”

What Became of the VVAW?

More than ten years before the founding of the Vietnam Veterans of America, another group had already mobilized. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War dates its founding to 1967, when six Vietnam veterans marched together in a peace demonstration. At its peak, membership topped 30,000, and VVAW members were a visible and popular presence at antiwar marches.

In 1970, the VVAW expanded its antiwar mission to include advocacy for returning veterans. That was what brought army nurse Sandie Wilson to the group when she enrolled at Wayne State University after her tour of duty in Vietnam. “I wasn’t opposed to the war at all,” says Wilson, who’s now active in the Vietnam Veterans of America (see main story). At Wayne, she says, “the VVAW was a political group asking the government for increased educational and VA benefits for Vietnam veterans. We met at the student union at the same table for lunch every day, and the guys would hang out at a bar owned by a Vietnam vet.”

Local peace activists say they’re not aware of an active VVAW chapter in Ann Arbor, but the group still claims about 2,000 members nationwide. According to its website, it continues to campaign for “peace, justice, and the rights of all United States military veterans.”


In the November, 2015 issue of Ann Arbor Observer