Sunday, December 03, 2000

Vietnam veterans slow to unite

VVA chapter marks 20 years

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CHEVIOT — At their first meeting in the basement of a fast-food restaurant on Glenway Avenue, just three guys showed up.

        Tim Culbertson gave them some literature from a new national organization called the Vietnam Veterans of America. He never saw them again.

        Vietnam veterans didn't talk much about the war or their experiences, at least not here, said Mr. Culbertson. A lot of them kept to themselves throughout the 1970s.

        “When I got back I did not know any other Vietnam veterans,” said Mr. Culbertson, who left the army in 1971. “Nobody talked about it. Everybody was trying to forget the war. You didn't tell people you were a Vietnam veteran.”

        Once Mr. Culbertson learned of this new organization that had been established in 1978 — three years after the fall of Saigon — he began beating the bushes, looking to set up a local chapter.

        It took a full year, but his and others' persistence finally paid off. On Dec. 3, 1980, a charter was given by the national organization to Vietnam Veterans of America, Cincinnati Chapter 10.

        It was the first VVA chapter established in Ohio, just the 10th in the country. Its office and post office box were in Cheviot.

        Now, 20 years later, the chapter survives, although the membership has dwindled a bit in recent years. It now has an office in Reading. Its membership is about 130, down from 250 or so 10 years ago.

        “People get burned out and it's hard to draw new members,” said Steve Taylor, VVA, Chapter 10 executive director. Vietnam veterans are getting older, most in their 50s and 60s. Their families have grown and compete for time, the fight for respect has now been accomplished and the issues are perhaps not as salient.

        But George Duggins, national president of the VVA, with headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., believes as the veterans get older, membership could grow as they face retirement and more time to pursue other interests.

        “The membership is holding steady at about 50,000,” said Mr. Duggins. “I think we'll see more of an increase as the population gets older. That's a good sign. What I see now is that we're going into adulthood. We came from infancy and adolescence.”

        Mr. Culbertson was there at its infancy.

        “It was a personal thing for me,” said Mr. Culbertson, as he sought to find 50 Vietnam vets willing to join so they could start a chapter.

        He joined other veteran organizations, such as the VFW and American Legion, and began approaching some of the younger members. His father, William Culbertson, a Cheviot attorney, helped him with office space in his law office and free legal advice. He suggested to his son that he call it the Cincinnati chapter, instead of Cheviot, because more people would recognize the larger city. His father even helped with office furniture.

        Local media took notice of this fledgling organization; the publicity helped. Other veterans organizations supported the new group. Gradually, Vietnam vets began coming forward. They found a camaraderie among themselves.

        Mr. Culbertson served as president for just a year. The torch was passed. The election of President Reagan, the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982, all helped to relieve whatever stigma was associated with Vietnam.

        Mr. Taylor said the organization locally is more into community service these days, and leaves a legislative agenda of veterans benefits to the national and state organization.

        “I'd like to wish them well on their 20th birthday,” said Mr. Duggins.


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