"Our founding principle at Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is to never again have one generation of American Veterans abandon another," says Rick Weidman, the advocacy organization's Executive Director of Government Affairs. The passionate former Army medic works hard to stand up for Veterans issues beyond those affecting his own generation.
"Sometimes I consider: what am I doing pounding my head against a concrete wall?" he explained in a recent phone interview. "But then something happens to a young Vet and I get angry all over again. What are we supposed to do, abandon our folks?"
Weidman, born in Texas in 1946, is the son of a career military man and enlisted himself after the 1968 election – just in time to be drafted to Vietnam. "I didn't believe in the war. I believed in service," he clarified. He attended Colgate University, but sooner than he could imagine, he was trained as a medic and sent overseas. He volunteered for three places: Hawaii, Japan, and Vietnam.
"On the way to Vietnam, we stopped to refuel in Hawaii and on the way back, we stopped to refuel in Japan, so I crossed them all off my list." He was assigned to Charlie Company, 23rd Medical Company, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, part of the Americal Division, and did one tour in Vietnam.
"As a medic you're always concerned about your folks, not yourself," he explained, recalling moments of being "caked in blood." When asked about the worst injuries he worked with he mentions children. "I can still hear those kids screaming. That was the worst – for me, anyway."
"I remember smoking a Camel cigarette and thinking, ‘this is all happening and I don't feel anything.' I had successfully shut down to get the job done there. The problem is getting unfrozen later." When Weidman returned from the war in 1971, he entered civilian life as an academic administrator in Vermont. But the call to service stuck with him.
At 26 years old, he received a significant amount of money to open Veteran service offices at all college campuses in the state of Vermont. He shifted his focus to the community. "Most men coming back to that state didn't want an English degree. We concentrated on employment and barriers to employment." While there were several Veteran service organizations around the country at the time, most did not know about each other or work collectively at that point.
Though Vermont was beautiful after the battles of Vietnam, Weidman had grown up in New York City and missed metropolitan life. He made the move to Washington in 1978 and began volunteering for the Council of Vietnam Veterans. The following year the organization was renamed Vietnam Veterans of America. "There were lots of ups and downs in the years to come," Weidman explained, making a long story short. "We got through it and built a national voice."
One such down was lack of funding. Before VVA's first convention in 1983 the organization had almost nothing. "We were just trying to keep the damn phone on." He's spent the last 30 years building support and advocating for Veteran employment, PTSD, and Agent Orange issues - none of which were being addressed by traditional Veteran organizations early on.
Today, "we're finally turning a corner with Agent Orange." Speaking about the current VA crisis, he believes the problem is only at the beginning of being solved. He recognizes the improvement from his generation of Veterans to those coming home today, but stills sees the advocacy battles ahead. An issue he's focused on for younger Veterans is judicial review. "We are a nation of laws, not a nation of men. It shouldn't be who you know; it should be what you did."
Why are he and the VVA fighting for all this? "We are the only ones too dumb to know when to give up," he jokes, but then adds, "It's sheet grit and tenacity." Though he started as strictly volunteer, he works full time for the VVA now. "My wife says, ‘if you're going to do it anyway you might as well get paid for it," he laughs.
His optimism and passion are clear."I love what I do. What we do may not make much of a difference for us (Vietnam Veterans), but it will for our sons and daughters and grandkids. Now's the time to drag it all in the sunshine and fix it."
Image Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHv5GptNYOs