For Queens, New York native John Rowan, President of the Vietnam Veterans of America, helping fellow troops in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and beyond will always be something near – and very dear – to his heart.
Over 30 years since VVA’s founding, the seasoned veterans’ advocate waxes proudly and nostalgically about the journey. “It’s been a long strange trip, as they used to say,” he tells Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview. Rowan has traced a path from securing historic legislation and benefits for Vietnam-era vets, to less glamorous duties like revamping VVA’s newspaper and Web site. Recently retired as a City of New York employee, he runs VVA full time and feels its best days are ahead.
Rowan is a leader who knows the issues military veterans face. As one of VVA’s first and most active members since 1978, Rowan has a deep understanding of the range of veterans’ concerns – from Agent Orange to PTSD to drug abuse to the family and financial responsibilities shouldered by today’s troops. The concerns are genuine, but the personal stories of his journey are often tragic. “I knew as many [Vietnam] veterans who died of heroin after the war as during the war,” he laments.
VVA continues to have a pronounced impact on the issues facing the Veteran community. These days Rowan is focused on two key fronts: Outreach for the present and preparation for the future.
“We have had great access to the Obama administration,” he said. “VA Secretary (Eric Shinseki) and the President have agreed to support advance funding for the VA healthcare budget, which has been a high priority for several years. Our team looks forward to working with this new administration and the new Democratic leadership in Congress. We did well with the Republicans, but the Democrats seem to be pushing hard on a number of our concerns.”
VVA’s “most important new initiative,” according to Rowan, is the creation of the Veterans Health Council. Its primary goal is to improve the quality of life and health of all Veterans.
“It is our hope, through the Council’s Web site, www.veteranshealth.org, and the Web sites and publications of our partners, that we might reach hundreds of thousands of veterans who otherwise might not know that the disease that is plaguing them and eating away at their savings may be associated with their service in Vietnam, or Korea, or Kuwait, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, and that they are eligible for treatment and may qualify for disability compensation and pension as well as other benefits from the VA,” he recently told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
“Far too many of our veterans simply are unaware of what they are entitled to and, more importantly, are ignorant about health issues that are associated with their time in service. It’s about time that we do something to fix this situation.”
Schooled on the streets of New York as well as its classrooms, Rowan enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1965, two years after graduating from high school. He went to language school, where he grew frustrated with the service opportunities as an Indonesian linguist, so he cross-trained in Vietnamese as the conflict there intensified. He served with the Air Force’s 6990 Security Squadron in Vietnam and at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, providing the Strategic Air Command with intelligence on North Vietnam's SAM sites to protect their bombing missions.
After his honorable discharge from the Air Force, John began college in 1969. He received a BA in political science from Queens College and a Masters degree in urban affairs at Hunter College. Growing more passionate about serving others, he began working with local NYC lawmakers, and networking with fellow veterans recently discharged. And from there, the rest of this long, strange trip – as they say – is history.
With an eye on the future, the goals Rowan has formulated and achieved over the years are the same ones he wishes for future veterans: Keep informed. It may stem from the greatest advice he received from his Army Veteran father, who reminded him of the persistence required for his son to one day receive his own benefits due to him.
“Keep every piece of paper they give you.”
Image Credit: http://vvaveteran.org/33-2/33-2_presmess.html