In 1978, due to the work of veterans who had served in Vietnam, Congress approved the formation of what is now known as the Vietnam Veterans of America. Since that time, the organization, which is dedicated to meeting the specific needs of Vietnam vets and the communities in which they live, has grown to a national membership of 65,000 with 617 chapters. In Athens, there is a solid group with a membership of 168, in Local Chapter 511 and the purpose of this article is to inform the people of our town as to the ways the VVA makes Athens a better place to live.
We have a number of ‘Nam or ‘Nam era vets who serve our community as part of its government. Mayor Ronnie Marks, Sheriff Mike Blakely, Limestone County Commissioner Stanley Menefee, and State Representative Dan Williams all served our country during what was a difficult time to be in the military. They, along with other area residents and businesspeople continue to do so through the VVA.
In the early days, when the local VVA chapter was just getting started, all of the veterans’ groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America used to meet at a bank in Athens. It became clear that the VVA needed their own “digs,” and some of the founders, including Ricky Knowles, Billy Massey, Hank Cobb, Jim Watson, Mike Davis, Ken David, Danny Gilliam and others set out to procure land and build a building. The land, which is located on the corner of Elm and Lucas Ferry, as well as the building are now owned free and clear.
Retired USAF Master Sergeant Bill Schueler chuckled when he told me about some of the things that were done to pay for the property and the building. “The first year we smoked over 12,000 pounds of turkey to raise money for the building.” “Wow!” I replied. They used to smoke turkeys and hams, have Bingo games, dances, dinners, and more, and paid everything off in about 30 months.
They set to work to make the wall that commemorates those who gave their lives during the War in Vietnam, located at the I-65 “Rocket Exit,” number 365. It is Alabama’s version of “the Wall” in D.C. There was also a tribal ceremony at the rest stop to honor the Alabama Native Americans who died in Vietnam when the wall was completed. Since then, there have been a number of projects that the VVA has been involved in.
“Right now we are focusing on the Scholarship program,” said Schueler. “Just recently we were granted $2500 for the fund,” he said, and they are looking to make it possible for the VVA children, grandkids and great grandkids to get an education. Every first Saturday they have “Chicken Stew 11 to 2,” along with a Turkey Shoot. For the Turkey shoot, the VVA provides the ammo. “The Turkey Shoot came about as a result for requests from the community,” he told me.
Other events the VVA holds are dances each Saturday night, and on the 3rd Monday of every month they hold a spaghetti dinner and supper. They also rent the building out for $250 and a refundable damage deposit of $100. The VVA is responsible for holding the local POW/MIA missing man ceremony, which occurs nationally on the 3rd Friday of September. I have attended one held at the Alabama Veterans’ Museum, and it was profoundly moving.
This past Thanksgiving the VVA prepared a community dinner for approximately 200 who came to the building, and volunteers delivered around 100 to shut-ins in Limestone County. Another new event is a gospel sing held every 1st Sunday, and food is collected for needy folks in Limestone County.
The officers of Chapter 511 are as follows: President, Retired USAF Major Al Nuss, Senior Vice President, Bill McKinley, who served in the Navy, 2nd Vice President John Houck, who served in the Army, Quartermaster, Jim Watson, who was in the Army, Treasurer, Retired USAF Master Sergeant Bill Schueler, Billy Turner, who served in the Army, Sgt of Guard Mike Hardy, formerly of the Navy. All of these men work to make sure VVA is running smoothly and there is a Friends of VVA group who volunteers at events as well.
“So, what’s ahead?” I asked Bill. “Well, these are in the dream stage still, but we are looking to have a horseshoe tournament and an archery tournament next year.” Bill also wanted to thank Athens for all their support, and to wish Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Also, if you are a Vietnam or Vietnam Era vet and need help, please contact us. We’re here to help.”
Vietnam Veterans of America
17915 W. Elm Street
Athens, AL 35611
Phone numbers: (256) 233-5549 and (256) 206-5399
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner