WESTMINSTER — Hoping to heal old wounds and reunite generations of veterans, Rick Will and Gary Jestes have started organizing a Carroll County chapterof the Vietnam Veterans of America.
The group, which needs 25 members to become a chapter, numbered about 10 at the organizational meeting Wednesday night. Jestes, who is creating a roster of Carroll residents who served during Vietnam, estimates about 1,000 countians areeligible.
"We're trying to get them to come out of the closet, so to speak," he said. "The war was so unpopular that (the veterans) wouldn't admit who they were when they came home."
Interest in starting a county organization -- similar to about five others in Maryland -- came after Carroll's Vietnam veterans memorial was completed in 1990.
"Ever since we dedicated the county (Vietnam veterans) memorial, numerous vets have suggested we start a chapter here," Will said. "Some belong to chapters in Frederick and Baltimore, and it's almost too far to run."
Like other veterans organizations, VVA works to ensure that the men and women who served during the war receive medical benefits and other support. However, the group -- nationally and statewide -- primarily focuses on Vietnam issues, such as research into the effects of Agent Orange.
"We're still concerned with veterans issues, but the Vietnam Veterans of America channels their energy into issuesthat pertain to the Vietnam veterans and their families," Will said."The only way to address veterans issues is through strength, strength in numbers."
County projects are chosen according to member interests, from visiting Veterans Administration hospitals to organizingjob training and placement for unemployed veterans, Will said. VVA members also work to help Vietnam veterans heal the anger, bitterness and shame many felt upon returning home.
"Some guys are still fighting the war in their minds, and they have to let go," Jestes said. "A lot of the vets have healed and have given a good account of themselves, and most of the vets I know are doing all right, but you don't forget your buddy. A lot of Vietnam vets need to come out of their shell and say, 'I'm a Vietnam vet and I did nothing wrong by going to war when my country asked me to.' "
Any service members from that era are eligible to join, whether or not they were sent to Vietnam. Unlike other veterans groups, men and women are members of the same organization.
"You go to these meetings, and there are the wives right beside these guys talking about how the war affected them," Jestes said.
VVA's next meeting will be at 7 p.m. May 5 at the VFW Post in Westminster. For more information, call 239-6274.