A Newbie’s Perspective on the VietNow National Convention

After several years of writing for the VietNow National Magazine, a woman walks into the National Convention as a total newbie.

VietNow National Convention

By Karen St. John

Although I have been writing for VietNow since 2006, this was my first trip to the National Convention.

Branson, Missouri, is one of the most veteran-friendly places in the nation. I liked the town immediately for that reason alone. The hotel was easy to find, the staff was pleasant, the bed and pillows comfortable, and the food was delicious and plentiful.

First night jitters

It’s never easy to be the newbie. The people I hold in a special place in my heart were going to be there – Vietnam veterans – along with their families and friends. I hoped I wouldn’t say something incredibly dim-witted.

Branson is one of the most veteran-friendly places in the nation.

At the appropriate time Thursday evening, I grabbed my camera and name­ tag, took a deep breath, and made my way to the hospitality gathering where someone by the name of John Steer was singing.  He was great, too, from what I could hear outside the Stonehenge Room.

I walked in and glanced around. Those first thirty seconds was the last ­instant I would ever feel uncomfortable. From the time I joined the group I felt that I was one of them.  And what a great honor that turned out to be.

As with so many who have suffered and borne the trials and tribulations of a rejecting society with grace and dignity, these veterans and their families and friends were spectacularly fun, kind, and compassionate.

These veterans and their families and friends wre spectacularly fun, kind, and compassionate.

And they watched out for the newbie. Told me about things I would not have known to ask about. Turns out John Steer is a Vietnam veteran, too. And because his voice was so good, it hadn’t fully registered that he had an artificial arm. “He’s seen terrible hells,” one of the veterans mentioned to me. As with most Vietnam veterans, you couldn’t tell. Vietnam veterans put their pain behind their backs, and you have to peek around them to even get a glimpse of it. They don’t so much hide it, as they do not show it. Life has become too precious to waste discussing their own pains. And, as is embodied in Rich Sanders, VietNow National President, these veterans have an astounding way of caring about someone else’s pain, instead of their own.

Time to get serious

The agenda was full: Credentials reporting, updates and speeches on POW/MIA issues and “fake” warriors, homeless veterans, women veterans, agent orange, VA updates, Sons and Daughters In Touch (national non-profit organization of sons and daughters of Vietnam War casualties), and a presentation on the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War.

VietNow National Convention

There were hospitality hours, an ongoing silent auction, live entertainment, an outdoor memorial service, a dinner cruise and show on the Branson Belle, a fabulous banquet, and a concluding worship service and breakfast.

The convention was extremely well organized.

I did mention, though, that this group – this seriously focused group – was – fun – didn’t I?

‘Mom’s Place’ is open

There was a special group in attendance at the convention: the Gold Star Moms.

If you don’t know the term, the gold stars are not for an achievement. Each mother in the group has suffered the worst thing a mother can endure: The loss of her child to war.

There was a special group in attendance – the Gold Star Moms.

No matter who took the stage and the podium, the Moms were always acknowledged. I would always be asked, “Have you met the Gold Star Moms yet?” I would say, nope, I hadn’t. What I didn’t add was that I was afraid of them – afraid of the truth that grouped them together. I’m a mother, too. We mothers have that pain peering over our shoulders constantly, too terrible to think about, and I was frightened of seeing the pain in their eyes, because I knew it would hurt me, too.

Some of the Gold Star Moms are in their eighties or maybe even older – but  these beautiful, lovely women look decades younger than their chronological ages, as do the daughters who accompanied them.

Friday night I walked into the hospitality hour, and immediately Jim Stepanek spotted me, smiled, walked up, and asked, “Have you met the Gold Star Moms yet?”

“Nope.” (My standard answer by now.)

“Well, then,” he said in his take-charge, voice, “It’s that table there, at the end of the room. Go say hello.” I turned to look in the direction he was pointing and burst out laughing.

There, at a huge, round table, with one lone brave male veteran, sat the moms talking animatedly and laughing. And – smack dab in the middle of that table – grouped all together in one common cluster – were several bottles of hard liquor.

I turned back to Jim and he grinned like a Cheshire cat – ”Mom’s Place is o-p-e-n.”

Irresistible

I made a beeline to the table, introduced myself, and remarked that in the midst of such beauty, kindness, and grace, they had the only hard liquor in the joint, and could I ­puh-leeze take a photo? Not only did they laugh good-naturedly, they grabbed their shot glasses, and raised them for the photos.

Their vitality and energy swept around that table, across the nearby tables, and hugged every person there, including me. But I was lucky – I got asked to join them, and an hour – or two later, I was wondering why ever I had waited so long to meet them.

It breaks your heart to know why they have the gold star. But looking into their eyes and seeing the strength in them – listening to their compassion and kindness – feeling the goodness in their laughter – takes your soul and sets it free.

“Mom’s Place” takes you gently inside yourself to show you what is there: A sparkle of hope that the world was going to be a gentler place – wars were going to stop – cruelty was going to dissolve. That’s because at “Mom’s Place,” one begins to think, “If they can endure the worst and still smile at the best, have the perfect reason to hate but still love, have every chance to go numb and cold but stay vibrant and joyful – surely, I cannot abandon my own hope.”

VietNow National Convention

The only time these Moms allowed their pain to wash across their sweet faces was when they talked to us as a group, and begged that we not forget their children.

VietNow won’t – guaranteed

I would tell the Moms in great sincerity, respect and love that they have inspired and touched me forever. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll pick up my little red cup on a string, pour myself a tad of Jimmie’s moonshine, and I’ll toss it back. That is my salute to them.

Time to say good-bye

On Sunday I packed up my car, checked out, and headed back the way I had come.

When I left Branson, I also left new friends I had come to respect and admire.

When I left Branson, I also left new friends I had come to respect and admire. Brothers and sisters in arms and hearts who stood up and grabbed the hand of the person next to them, making one circle around the room each time a patriotic song came on, uniting us all as nothing ­– or no one else – could. In those handclasps, that’s where the real convention was held. So. See you next year?

 

Karen St. JohnKaren St. John has been a veterans’ advocate since 2005, concentrating in PTSD/health-care issues. Her oldest brother is a Vietnam veteran. Visit her web site at stjohnveterans.wordpress.com.