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After Action Report: VVAW SE Regional Conference

By Willie Hager

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Sunday, August 16, 2009
The Hootch
VVA Chapter 96 Home
Tallahassee, Florida
July 24-26, 2009

Sponsored by the VVAW National Office and modeled on VVAW's West Coast Tour, the conference gathered SE Representatives of VVAW, IVAW, VFP, MFSO and progressive allies to identify strengths and weaknesses and to agree on mutual strategy. VVAW National was represented by Barry Romo and Marty Webster, National Coordinators. VFP sent Mike Hearington, VFP Chap 125, as SE representative. Jason Hurd, IVAW Chapter 55 & IVAW SE Regional Coordinator and Zach Choate, IVAW Chap 4 represented IVAW. MFSO sent a letter of support. VVA chapter 96 waived fees on The Hootch.

Willie Hager and Jason Hurd at the Hootch

The Hootch was built on land donated by American Legion Sauls-Bridges Post 13, VVA Chapter 96 raised the funds, drew up plans and now manages it for the use of all veterans. Vietnam Veterans of Florida State Coalition chapters traveled to assist in construction. Our host, Rick Clevenger, President of VVA 96, was chairman of the building committee, Josh and Mac, Vietnam Veterans Of North Florida/VVAW First Coast, provided logistical support and me, VVNF/VVAW Organizing Coordinator all worked to make the Hootch a reality. To the four of us, this Conference was validation of over thirty years of struggle to build a unified Veterans front. We had come full circle. The spirit of the VVNF and Florida State Coalition motto; Together Then - Together Again, set the tone for this VVAW SE gathering.

Friday, a lazy summer evening at the Hootch, we got to know each other better over a few beers. A large time was had by all. On the front porch overlooking lovely Lake Ella, Jason broke out his fiddle, a musical backdrop with a folk bent. In what we refer to here as a boogie caucus, unity of purpose was reinforced. In addition to warming relations, we refined the agenda for the next day and gained knowledge of what was working at home and what wasn't.

Saturday's round table format was moderated by Willie Hager. Barry Romo made the opening remarks, followed by Marty Webster.

Barry spoke to VVAW's history of effective organizing around issues of social justice, Veterans rights and issue advocacy. VVAW led the fight for recognition of Post Vietnam Syndrome. PVS was recognized as an anxiety disorder in the DSM III and renamed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Barry put these struggles in context encouraging us to continue to adjust in a rapidly changing Obama anti-war and social justice model of grass-roots organizing. Veteran status gives us credibility with the American people and in military ranks. Barry suggested that we should hone our lobbying skills and take our message to congress. VVAW has had some major successes there. Three focal issues Barry offered were PTSD, Agent Orange and Sexual Abuse of Women in the Military. He reaffirmed a current priority mission to support IVAW's grass-roots movement.

Marty Webster

Marty reinforced the need to present a united front. As he traveled the country and made personal contacts, he was impressed with the bonds that still remained in so many folk and their willingness to jump back in. Marty felt continued support of IVAW's actions and programs, and logistical support for their actions and events was our main job. He also spoke about PTSD and the need to restructure claim filing and mental health service delivery. PTSD is a societal ticking bomb.The number of new victims soaring out of control. Marty concluded his comments with his belief that the first step to an effective strategy was realistic goal setting.

IVAW SE Regional Coordinator, Jason Hurd, said IVAW was examining fresh strategies and tactics, looking to VVAW for continued support and to VVAW and VFP as mentors, as they rebuild their base following a year of internal strife. No problemo, all of us from the old school were graduates of similar processes within VVAW and VFP. He said IVAW's cohesiveness was strongest at the regional level and given good options and workable goals, the IVAW folks out in the more rural areas would rally.

Jason believes we need to unite around mutual issues and design and implement an outreach program. He felt IVAW's strongest capacities are just outside the gates of the major military installations in the Southeast and that we should begin our initial campaign there. Recognizing the power of the Winter Soldier testimonies in raising consciousness within our communities and email networks; Jason thought we should consider presenting a major WS in the Southeast. He believes VVAW and IVAW should research certification. Assertive advocacy is a very real need of returning Veterans, as they try and thread their way through the nightmare world of Veterans claim law. The current crop of VSOs, is on par with public defenders; underpaid, understaffed and under enthused.

Mike Hearington and Mike Burke work with the Georgia Veterans Alliance to build a network of Veterans. Shared resources are the key to the day-to-day quality of life issues for returning Veterans. With the Atlanta IVAW they also work closely with the National Association of Black Veterans (NABVET), a grassroots Veterans self help group that is certified as a (VSO). Mike said that their most successful direct outreach tactic is working the Atlanta Airport, welcoming returning GI's home, providing leaflets, brochures and resource references to aid them with readjustment to life back in the world. VFP and VVAW, there in Hotlanta, are also actively campaigning for GI Rights, specifically with regard to counter recruiting on campus and ROTC in public schools. They also distribute a great new online and hard copy VFP newspaper, the War Crimes Times. Well written, factual and in dead earnest. Read all about it! Oh, yeah, it's a blog, too; so, have at it with your personal take on things.

Mike Hearington presented on Mike Burke's behalf. Issues for them, were the School Of The Americas Vigil in November, GI Rights Outreach and counter recruiting.

The focal issues that floated to the surface of our discussions were those that were directly related to Veterans, their families, quality of life, following the trauma of suffering, or having resisted, or even having spoken out about, combat in foreign lands based on false premises and outright lies. There was a consensus in the room, that ideological struggles, internally and externally were a distraction to organizational or strategic effectiveness, in that they created divisiveness, rather than unity of purpose.

Here are the issues that were mutually agreed should be anchors of our grass-roots outreach campaign in the Southeast:

GI Rights and Counter Recruiting - to include continued support of COs such as Robin Long; development of counter high school ROTC programs; development of a Winter Soldier panel of recruiters, and what Jason called Base Building - the establishment of outreach facilities in close proximity to major military installations, which caters to both active duty military and local Veterans. A comfortable place to hang, providing access to local programs and services for Veterans and their families.

Sexual Abuse of Women in the Military - Development of Womens affinity groups, what we used to call "rap groups," or perhaps, womens writing groups. Development of a Winter Soldier panel of Women Veterans who have suffered sexism or sexual assault while in the military, but especially in the combat zones. Support of the actions of currently organized Womens Veteran groups.

Veterans Immigration and Citizenship Issues - This issue has already taken off in SoCal, with VVAW, VFP, IVAW and MFSO actively supporting the established defense committee, which recently raised funds to travel to the VFP National Convention and to lobby congressional representatives in Washington, DC.

PTSD Outreach and Program Development - direct Veterans to already successful grass-roots programs; redefine the current diagnosis and services delivery models from mentally oriented, to socially oriented.

VA - reform of Claims Division to an advocacy (not adversarial screening) agency; reform of the mental health delivery system; reform VocRehab educational payment system and incorporate it into the VA Disability payment matrix, rejecting its current, counter-productive practices. This would include reform of periodic certification procedures to be more user friendly for the Veteran; continued support of actions that call attention to the VAs reckless management of our affairs and properties; reform of current Veterans outreach models regarding benefits and claims support, and increased direct access to the claims process by the Veteran.

It was acknowledged that issues of ideology and political philosophy needed to be regularly tuned up and that this is the concern of National Steering Committees or Executive Boards rather than as make or break grass-roots dogma. Outreach should not require a political oath or pledge, in order to be implemented on a Veteran's behalf, anymore than anyone ought to have to say a prayer, to get food and a bed at a homeless shelter; all that should be required, is that they have a genuine need of the benefit, or service. As long as the outreach is undertaken within the goals and mission of the organization; the actions should speak much more loudly than the accompanying words, in order for them to be successful. Build it, and they will come.

Actions, not words, are the fuel of successful Veterans outreach.

In that spirit, it was resolved by those present that we would form an organizing committee, made up of VVAW, IVAW and VFP reps. That group would develop an itinerary for directly reaching areas where we had capacity and assisting with chapter and/or program development. We would share our suggestions, and proposals of mutual tactics, when we next met. At the moment, that will be in Savannah, Georgia, at a GI Outreach forum being sponsored and hosted by the Savannah Chapter of IVAW Labor Day weekend.

At this point it seemed that we had accomplished our stated mission; we had joined forces, agreed on unified principles, had begun constructing an infra-structure, and a strategy for providing meaningful self-help information and programs, as well as having initiated an active plan for mutual chapter and membership building for each of our organizations.

A very long and productive day, and we could smell the ribs smokin', just outside the door...do I hear a motion? Actually, I heard a rumble; time to call it a day, here at the office. To the Hootch for a rib dinner, liquid refreshment and an evening of one on one, relaxing on the porch, overlooking Lake Ella, on a long, balmy, southern summer evening. As the sun set, Jason picked on his fiddle as we talked, long into the night, forming lasting friendships and celebrating our mutually achieved accomplishments.

Together Then...
Together Again...

Willie Hager is currently the Administrative Coordinator and Contributing Editor of www.VetSpeak.org.
He is a proud member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

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