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September/October 2022 -   -  


VVA held its National Leadership & Education Conference for the first time in four years during the second week of August at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. It was the second national meeting — after the COVID-19-delayed National Convention in November in Greensboro, N.C. — in less than a year. And, like the Convention, the Leadership Conference brought together VVA and AVVA members from across the country for five days of camaraderie and to take part in hands-on work for the good of the organization.

“More than three hundred people came to Greenville,” VVA President Jack McManus said, “a solid number, given the circumstances. And everyone I spoke to agreed with me that this was one of VVA’s best conferences from start to finish, featuring more than two dozen uniformly excellent seminars, four days of VVA Service Officers training, and great opportunities to meet and work with VVA and AVVA leaders on the many issues we will be dealing with in the coming years.”

The Conference — the first since 2018 after COVID forced the cancellation of the 2020 Dayton, Ohio, LC — officially began on Wednesday morning, August 10 (which happened to be Agent Orange Awareness Day), with the always-stirring Opening Ceremonies. It was standing room only as more than 300 people filled every seat in the hotel ballroom for the kickoff.

In recognition of the day, VVA national staffers clad in orange polo shirts distributed orange vests and orange glow sticks to the attendees as they entered the room. The Conference planners added a solemn display of the Agent Orange flag during the Presentation of the Colors, during which everyone observed a minute of silence. After that, the lights dimmed, “Taps” played, and the flag was slowly and ceremoniously carried to the stage.

After welcoming remarks from Jack McManus, South Carolina State President Sam Brick, and AVVA President Sharon Hobbs, the Keynote Speaker, Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Walter Gaskin, took the stage. Gen. Gaskin, the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, among other things, commanded the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq. He said that when he went on active duty in 1974, all the men under his command were Vietnam War veterans.

“I learned from them how to lead and how to care for one another,” he said. “I learned that from you—and I thank you for the opportunity to talk to my heroes.” He went on to praise Vietnam War veterans for their “activism and advocacy” on behalf of their fellow veterans on Agent Orange, PTSD, and other issues. “You cared,” Gen. Gaskin said. “You showed up. You taught us never to give up, never to quit, despite how you were treated” when you came home. “You were our Greatest Generation.”


A half hour after the Opening Ceremonies ended, the slate of seminars began for the 313 registered VVA and AVVA attendees. For the next four days all were well attended, with some filling the bigger breakout rooms to capacity.

That afternoon’s VVA and AVVA Officers Luncheon included a presentation by retired USAF Col. Phil Waite, the Chief of Strategy Planning Analysis at the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Commemoration. Col. Waite went over the program’s history and the involvement of VVA chapters and state councils across the country as its Commemorative Partners. The luncheon ended with the presentation of Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pins to those who hadn’t received one.

The lone Wednesday afternoon seminar on Survivor Benefits drew a big crowd — as did all the other seminars later in the week dealing with aging veterans’ issues. “Parts of the seminars on aging were depressing, but that’s a reality we all have to face,” said John Lavelle, the vice president of Chapter 776 in Bettendorf, Iowa. “I’m now planning to bring in a lawyer to talk to the chapter about the Living Will. As someone said, it’s ‘The final gift to your family.’ ”

Thursday featured three tiers of morning sessions, six in all. They included a VA Benefits Q&A led by VVA Veterans Benefits attorneys Alec Ghezzi, Claire Corsey, and Dani Fischer, and longtime VVA Veterans Service Officer Marc McCabe; a seminar of Legislative Advocacy led by Pete Peterson, VVA’s Government Committee Chair, and Sharon Hodge, our Executive Director of Policy and Government Affairs; and a session on suicide prevention. The AVVA Awards Luncheon on Thursday ended with a presentation on the VA Caregivers Act by Sharon Hodge and Chuck Byers, VVA’s Health Care Committee Chair. Ann Rice, the President of Tennessee Chapter 240, received the AVVA Commendation Medal. The AVVA Member of the Year went to Diana Schaack of Florida Chapter 1048.

Friday was the busiest day of the conference. The day began with a 7:00 a.m. POW/MIA Ceremony. Then came a dozen seminars and workshops, starting at 9:00 a.m. and running to 5:15 p.m. They included seminars on Treasurers’ responsibilities; the Tiny Homes project for homeless veterans; a Bylaws workshop; the new AVVA From Heartbreak to Hope program for families dealing with a veteran’s death; a Veterans Oral History presentation; and one on basic parliamentary procedures.

The Closing Ceremonies took place on Saturday morning at 10:30 following the last three seminars. Terry Courville, the longtime president of the Louisiana State Council and Baton Rouge, La., Chapter 852, received the organization’s highest award, the VVA Commendation Medal.

Before the retirement of the American flag, VVA President Jack McManus presided over an open mic session, in which members of several chapters and state councils announced donations to the Kentucky State Council for its program to help those affected by the recent devastating floods in Eastern Kentucky. Members also spoke about chapter cremains programs and offered their assessments of the Conference — all of them favorable.

“Every time I come to the Leadership Conferences, I always learn something,” said Missouri State Council President Charles Stapleton, “and it’s not because I’m a slow learner.”

The culminating event, the Awards Banquet, took place Saturday evening. Some 275 people gathered for dinner and the ensuing awards presentation, emceed by VVA’s Meeting Planner Wes Guidry and myself. U-Haul and Lowe’s Companies received the President’s Award for Supporting America’s Veterans.

We also presented three Lifetime Achievement Awards to VVA members: the recently retired Archivist of the United States (the presidentially appointed head of the National Archives) David Ferriero, who served as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam in 1970-71; Diane Carlson Evans, who served a 1968-69 tour of duty as an operating and recovery room nurse at the Army’s 36th Evac Hospital in Vung Tau and the 71st Evac in Pleiku, and went on to lead the effort to build the national Vietnam Women’s Memorial; and John Rowan, a USAF veteran who has been active in VVA since soon after our founding in 1978, and served as VVA’s national president from 2005-2021. Ferriero, in his acceptance speech, focused on those who did not come home from Vietnam—and the work of National Archives employees who help veterans. He ended with thanking “the gentle heroes I left behind,” and expressed his “admiration to the men and women in my National Personnel and Records Center in St. Louis for the passion they bring to serving our veterans and their families.”

Evans spoke of the crucial help she received from VVA during the ten-year fight she led to build the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. “I believe this prestigious award says more about you than it says about me,” she said. “I see today as finally my opportunity to say ‘Thank You’ to Vietnam Veterans of America for what you did—not for what I did.”

There is “a greatness in every generation, and undeniably in ours. Vietnam Veterans of America has proven that. Carry on your good works, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to thank you for all you do for us and for America.”




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