By Michael Isam
St. Augustine, Fla, (August 19, 2013) – There it was, an entire era in one place at one time. Talk about an overlap of the time-space continuum!
The weather was already in the 80’s at 8 a. m. and predicted to be hotter by mid-afternoon. Just in the action of standing still, clothes became wet. Moving made the wet patches larger, and the shade offered little relief.
From seemingly nowhere came the thought “Hopefully the monsoon will cool things down.” Along with that thought, for an eternity-like moment, everything morphed to an abundance of jungle, then came the added weight of a flack jacket followed closely by the feel of a steel pot on the head. Was it the blink of an eye, a minute possibly an hour? Just as abruptly, the vision morphed into an expanse of the St. Johns River with tall buildings in the back ground. The reality of August 2013 in Jacksonville, FL took command.
The 16th biennial National Convention of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) was about to get under way. Many veterans had yet to check in for rooms, convention ID, and delegate registration. Lines were long, reminiscent of the ‘hurry up and wait’ days. Bellhops pushing luggage carts were moving at the speed of the “Flash” darting between groups of people lost in conversation and oblivious to their surroundings. Some were just lost.
Small conclaves were forming by state, and in many cases, by the units in which time away from ‘the world’ was served. Black vests, with and without motorcycle insignia, but each proudly proclaiming the Vietnam Veterans of America logo and other choice phrases, were everywhere.
The most interesting attire appeared seemed to come from nowhere. Picture two men who appeared to be floating through the sea of bodies each wearing dark powder blue Polo-style shirts, black pants, military boots, and black berets. Standing out from the uniform was the gold star on the belt. The star echoed the words “VVA Marshal” emblazoned on the shirt. “We are basically directing people to the places they can’t seem to find,” said one marshal. “In the event of a problem, we are trained to handle situations that can easily get out of control.” “Luckily,” he added, “those are few and very far between.”
About noon delegates began massing in the main lobby. The air was filled with an underlying tenseness. The feeling appeared to physically manifest in a stiff posture. Movements became less animated, the eyes were in a constant motion of furtive side to side glances, and voices became almost whispers. The time for the wreath laying at the Vietnam Monument located on the lawn of the courthouse was close at hand.
VVA National President John Rowan and Nancy Switzer, National President of Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America (AVVA), flanked by the color guard of the Nicholas J. Cutinha VVA Chapter 1046, Duval County, placed wreaths honoring locals who died in Vietnam. “This is traditional,” said Rowan. “It is something we take very solemnly and seriously.”
A POW/MIA remembrance ceremony, led by former Vietnam POW Bill Byrnes, was held during breakfast. “This ceremony is held to honor our Prisoners of War for their sacrifices and to remember the ones who have not yet returned,” said Les Bertrand of VVA Chapter 1046, Duvall County. According to information obtained from the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office,” said Bertrand, “as of August 9, 2013, 1,645 are still missing from the Vietnam War: 1,276 in Vietnam; 309 in Laos; 53 in Cambodia; and 7 in China. From the state of Florida, there remain 57 servicemen unaccounted for.
Of special interest to Vietnam Veterans was the Agent Orange Town Hall meeting. The forum addressed the birth defects, diseases, and learning disabilities affecting the children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans.
“We must not be silent about the ill health effects of battlefield exposures on our veterans, on our children, our grandchildren, and the generations to come,” said Nancy Switzer, AVVA President. “We encourage all veterans and their families with children and/or grandchildren suffering from mysterious illnesses to research and gather as much knowledge and information as possible.”
Besides the normal business of elections of officers and amending the organization constitution and bylaws, there was the Awards Dinner, which was sold out well in advance.
Dr. Guion Guy Bluford, Jr., the former NASA astronaut who became the first
African-American to enter outer space, and Dr. G. Reid Lyon, one of our nation’s top neuro-psychologists, received Excellence in the Sciences Awards.
H. Lee Barnes, the award-winning novelist and short-story writer who served as an Army Special Forces A Team sergeant in the Vietnam War, received the Excellence in the Arts Award. “Lee Barnes’s service as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War has had a strong influence on his top-flight fiction writing,” said Rowan.
The award winner most well known, the famed singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie received the President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. “Arlo Guthrie is a cultural icon of the Vietnam War era. His song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ resonates with all Americans who lived through that time, including Vietnam veterans,” said Rowan.
Also popular during the convention was the area dubbed ‘VA Gulch’ where every area of the VA had a booth and were waiting to assist. The booth helping with the online connection to order prescriptions was by far the most popular.
Just beyond the gulch was ‘Veterans Mall’. Standing out among all the patches, hats, vests, and other memorabilia was a banner proclaiming “For those who have been there and done that: your t-shirts are ready!”
A special note to all the brothers and sisters of the Vietnam War, a thorough search of all menus in the hotel and the menu for the dinner on Saturday night gave a smile of delight to many. The words “Lima Beans and Ham” were nowhere to be found!