Sunday, August 16, 2009

After Action Report: VVAW SE Regional Conference

VVAW SE Regional Organizing, Planning, & Tasking Conference
The Hootch, VVA Chapter 96 Home
Tallahassee, Florida
July 24-26 2009

The purpose of this conference was to gather the designated SE Representatives of VVAW, IVAW, VFP, MFSO, and other progressive Veterans organizations and allies in a relatively centralized location, for the purpose of identifying our strengths, and assessing and addressing our weaknesses with-in our demographic. Also, and most importantly, in my opinion, for key organizers with-in the region to meet and talk with one another face to face, and agree on a mutual strategy of unity of purpose, issues, and process, compatible with the stated goals and structure of our various organizations.
The conference was sponsored by the VVAW National Office and was modeled on the VVAW West Coast Tour, undertaken in California this past spring. VVAW National was represented by Barry Romo & Marty Webster, VVAW National Coordinators. VFP designated Mike Hearington, Atlanta VFP Chap 125, as their SE representative to the conference.
Jason Hurd, IVAW Savannah Chapter 55, member & IVAW Southeast Regional Coordinator, along with Zach Choate, IVAW/Atlanta chapter 4, were there, representing IVAW. MFSO was committed to other activities that weekend, but sent a letter of support for the stated goal of the conference; that of creating a unified front of diverse progressive Veterans groups, and allies. One where talent, resources, and priorities are shared and coordinated, around a slate of mutually pre-determined focal issues, as was done so successfully with the West Coast Tour.

The conference was hosted by
Vietnam Veterans of America, Big Bend Chapter 96. In support of the goals of the conference, they provided their chapter home, The Hootch, for a two-day period, waiving the usual hall rental fees. The Hootch was built on land donated to the chapter by American Legion Sauls-Bridges Post 13. VVA Chapter 96 membership raised the funds for materials and drew up the plans. Work parties provided by the various chapters of the Vietnam Veterans of Florida, State Coalition, traveled from around the state to Tallahassee, to assist the VVAW 96 membership in the construction of the building. When the building was dedicated, it was for the use of all Veterans, under the management of VVAW Chapter 96.

Four persons, who had actively participated in that string of Florida Veteran’s history, were involved in the presentation of the VVAW SE Conference. Our host, Rick Clevenger, who was chairman of the building committee for The Hootch, and is the current President of VVA 96; Josh and Mac, Vietnam Veterans Of North Florida/VVAW First Coast, who provided logistical support for the Conference format; and myself, Vietnam Veterans Of North Florida/VVAW Organizing Coordinator. To all of us, this Conference was validation of over thirty years of struggle, together, to build and maintain a unified Veterans front; we had, for a fact, 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 evening, the 24th, we all got together at the Hootch, over a few beers, and to get to know one another better, and to learn more about what was going on back in our respective AOs. And, a large time was had, by all. Jason broke out his fiddle, and provided a musical backdrop with a folk bent, out on the front porch of the Hootch, overlooking lovely Lake Ella, on a lazy summer evening. We were able, there, in what we refer to here in Florida, as a boogie caucus, to learn about each other’s work back home. The bond of unity of purpose was reinforced with this down home social interaction. In addition to warming relations, we were able to refine the agenda, in preparation for the next day’s business eliminating any redundancies, and having a brief working knowledge of what was working at home, and what was not, up to this point in time

We used a round table format for the Conference on Saturday morning. I acted as Moderator for the session. Following the welcome, and opening introductions all around, VVAW National Coordinator,
Barry Romo, made the opening remarks, followed by National Coordinator, Marty Webster. Barry’s comments spoke to VVAWs history of effective organizing around issues of not only social justice, but of Veterans rights and issue advocacy.

A primary example was that VVAW had led the fight for recognition of what we called Post Vietnam Syndrome (PVS), and carried the fight forward until PVS was recognized as a an anxiety disorder, in the DSM III, and was re-named there-in as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Barry talked about that, and other struggles, as well. He put them in the context of their times and stated that we all continue to re-think our strategies, in a rapidly changing Obama anti-war and social justice paradigm of grass-roots organizing tactics and strategies.

Recognizing that we are, after all, a Veterans organization; by legal definition, as well as in membership, and that our status as such gives us a leg up in credibility with the American people, and with-in the ranks of the military; Barry suggested that we should hone our congressional lobby skills, and begin to take our message and our issues, not only to the streets, on the internet, and to the campuses and into the community; but to the halls of congress as well. VVAW has had some major successes there, over the years, he reminded us.
The three focal issues that Barry offered for consideration for the conference were those of PTSD, Agent Orange, and Sexual Abuse of Women in the Military. Barry also re-stated that the current priority mission was providing whatever support we have available to IVAW, as they grow their grass-roots movement. I first heard this pledge from the membership at the VVAW 40th re-union, and VVAW has acted accordingly, ever since; not leading, but mentoring, when asked. IVAW has some pretty dynamic leadership of its own…coupled with our experience, it is a potent mix.
Marty reinforced the message that we had initiated with the West Coast Tour; that of setting basic pragmatic goals and issues that all of our organizations could work in consort with, sharing talent and resources on mutually agreed upon focal issues events, presenting a united front to the VA, to the electorate, our various State houses, and to the Congress of The United States. This is a process that has already begun, out in SoCal, with the
Rally to fight the VA Land Grab and Save Our Veterans’ Property, and with the Veterans’ Immigration issue.
Marty said that what impressed him most as he traveled around the country, and made personal commo with folks on the VVAW Contacts list, was the bond VVAW, and with other allies of old, that still remained in so many folks. That, and their willingness to jump back in the fray, after all these years. Marty also said that he felt like continued support of IVAW’s actions and programs, and being available for logistical support for their actions and events was our main job, in the 21st century, as he saw it.

The focal issue that Marty put forth for consideration was PTSD and a restructuring of the paradigm for claims filing, and mental health service delivery. PTSD is the societal ticking bomb that has yet to be successfully neutralized; time for another look, by all of us. IVAW is the new crop of victims, and their numbers are soaring out of control. In keeping with the theme of the Conference, Marty concluded his comments with his belief that the first step to an effective strategy was realistic goal setting.
IVAW Southeast Regional Coordinator, Jason Hurd, spoke to the fact that IVAW was in a process of examining some fresh strategies, and potential tactics, and were looking to VVAW for continued support for their programs and issues, and that they were looking to VVAW and VFP as mentors, as they rebuild their base, following a fractious year of internal strife. No problemo, all of us from the old school were graduates of similar processes with-in VVAW and VFP. His appeal dovetailed with the purposes of the conference, and were inspirational to the rest of us, in terms of designing a strategy for an over-all fragmented southeast, as it applies to grass-roots outreach, organizing, and program building. His personal assessment was that the IVAW’s cohesiveness was strongest at the regional level, and that given good options, and workable goals, the IVAW folks out in the more rural areas would feel the support, and rally, there in their communities.
It is Jason’s belief that the first order of business should be for us to all unite around a mutually supportable set of focal issues, and together, design and implement an outreach program that would identify what IVAW describes as capacities, with-in the region, and expand a grass-roots network, from there. Together, he believes, we could design and present a program that would identify and begin to utilize that capacity network in a mutually agreed upon strategy that would rally folks around mutually selected focal issues. In that regard, Jason said that he felt that IVAW’s strongest capacities were just outside the gates of the major military installations, here in the Southeast, and that we should begin our initial outreach campaign there; in the heart of the beast. I couldn’t agree more. You gotta love this Brother’s spirit!
Lastly, after mentioning the magic that he felt in the room, Jason discussed the power of the Winter Soldier events, both as an organizing venue, and as a therapeutic process for all those involved, but especially for those who testify. We all recognized and discussed the power of the testimonies on the raising of consciousness of the uninformed public with-in our communities and down-line e-mail networks…one of our most powerful tools, when used correctly. Jason thought that we should assess our capacity for presenting a major WS, here in the Southeast, as we begin our grass-roots outreach campaign. I suggested that, in so doing, we should insure that there is a panel of women Veterans on the program, to address sexism, and sexual assault, with-in the military, at home, and in the combat theatres. All there, agreed.
These days, Winter Soldiers continue to lead the fight for Objective Truth, as it applies to our involvement in Iraq & Afghanistan, and our government’s duplicity in disinformation and outright lies, regarding the causal factors of our involvement, there in the Mid-East. Jason, an Army Medic, used a term that I had always believed to be a USMC tradition, to describe to us this Winter Soldier dynamic; Leadership By Example. If not us, then, who?
Mike Hearington, The VFP SE representative to the Conference addressed his and Mike Burke’s (the Atlanta VVAW Contact) work with the Georgia Veterans Alliance in building a cross organizational network of Veterans’ activists, and allies, regardless of organizational affiliation. The key being applicable shared resources for the day-to-day quality of life issues for returning Veterans. They, and the Atlanta IVAW, for instance, work closely with the
National Association of Black Veterans (NABVET), a grassroots Veterans self help group that is certified as a National Veterans Services Organization (VSO), same as the DAV, VFW, etc.
This is something that Jason commented on, stating that he thought that VVAW and IVAW research the feasibility of obtaining certification, because he, like myself, doesn’t believe that there is enough assertive advocacy on behalf of Veterans in the ranks of the traditional VSOs, and yet that is a very real need on the part of our returning Veterans, as they try and thread their way though the nightmare world of Veterans claim law, far from what we would call an advocacy oriented institution. The current crop of VSOs, are to me, about on par with public defenders; underpaid, understaffed, and under enthused in the mission.
Mike said that their most successful direct outreach tactic is working the Atlanta Airport, and welcoming returning GI’s home, and 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 campuses, and working on the issue of ROTC in the public schools. They also distribute a great new on-line and hardcopy VFP newspaper, the
War Crimes Times. Well written, factual, and in dead earnest. Get it right here! Read all about it! Oh, yeah, it’s a blog, too; so, have at it with your personal take on things.
Mike Burke of Atlanta VVAW was unable to attend, due to family matters, but he and Mike Hearington work closely on many projects there in Atlanta, together, and Mike H presented on his behalf, as well. Issues and/or events for consideration for rallying the troops, for them, were the School Of The Americas Vigil in November, GI Rights Outreach, and Counter Recruiting.
All of that took us right up to lunch break. We broke up and sent delegations to of the closest Mexican restaurants to the Hootch; El Jalisco, at 2022 N. Monroe Street, Tallahassee, and the San Miguel Mexican Restaurant at 200 Tharpe St. By all reports, they were both, muy bueno!
When we returned in the afternoon, having done a round robin on resources and/or capacities, and current ongoing work, back in our home 20s, we turned our attention, and our discussions, to focal issue priorities and strategy models.
The focal issues that floated to the surface of our discussions were those that were directly related to Veterans, their families, and a better quality of life, following the trauma of suffering, or having resisted, or even having spoken out about, combat in foreign lands that are 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 the lynchpins of our grass-roots outreach campaign, here 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, as well. In Jason’ words; a comfortable place to hang. One that provides access to local programs and services addressing a better quality of life for Veterans, and their families.
  • Sexual Abuse of Women in the Military – Development of Women’s affinity groups, such as what we used to call “rap groups”, or perhaps, women’s 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 Women’s Veteran groups.
  • Veterans’ Immigration and Citizenship Issues – This issue has already taken off in SoCal, with VVAW, VFP, IVAW, and MFSO, all actively supporting the established defense committee, which recently raised funds to travel and present, at the VFP National Convention. In addition, to lobby congressional representatives, in Washington, D.C. x
  • PTSD Outreach and Program Development – identify, and direct Veterans to already up and running, and with a record of accomplishment, grass-roots programs; redefine the current paradigm of diagnosis and services delivery models from mentally oriented, to social oriented.
  • VA – reform of Claims Division to an advocacy agency, as opposed to that of an adversarial screening agency; reform of the mental health delivery system; reform VocRehab educational payment system and incorporate it into the VA Disability payment matrix, rather than allowing it to continue with its current, counter-productive practices. This would include reform of periodical certification procedures, to be more user friendly for the Veteran; continued support of actions, calling attention to the VA’s 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 clearly acknowledged by all in attendance, that there were issues of ideology and political philosophy that needed to be regularly tuned up, in assessing the nature of an organization’s national perspective and actions. My sense is, that most believe, as I do, that this is the concern of National Steering Committees or Executive Boards, and are more matters for internal attention and adjustment, 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, any more than anyone ought to have to say a prayer, to get fed 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 with-in 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. This is true, whether for program and services information and implementation help with the day-to-days, or organizational membership recruitment.
In that spirit, it was resolved by those present that we would form an organizational organizing committee, made up of VVAW, IVAW, and VFP reps. That group would, together, develop an itinerary for directly outreaching areas where we had capacity, and assisting those areas 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, over the Labor Day weekend.
At this point it seemed that we had accomplished our stated mission; we had joined forces, agreed on unified principles, and 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.
It had been a very long, but very 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. After an hour or so break, we all returned 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, and formed fast, and lasting friendships, as well as celebrated our mutually achieved accomplishments.

Together Then...

Together Again...