Federal Advisory Committee Meeting Report
from the USA Vietnam War 50th Commemoration
held in Washington, DC, Sept 19, 2016
The Federal Advisory Committee (FAC) for the US government and Pentagon Vietnam War 50th Commemoration (VWC) met in Washington, DC, during the afternoon of September 19, 2016. It was the last public meeting of the FAC for the current fiscal year and it was also its longest meeting as well. Chaired by former governor and Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge, and composed of 16 other members including Morton Dean, former CBS-TV news correspondent, Rocky Bleier, former NFL Pittsburgh Steeler star, and Jan Scruggs, who founded Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund which built the Memorial Wall, the meeting had only two agenda items but met for over 3 hours.
The two agenda items for the meeting were: (1) report and consideration of the Certificate of Honor Program; and (2) report and voting on 7 recommendations from the Communications Working Group (CWG). Below is a summary of those deliberations. The format of the meeting included several staff reporting to the committee, members of the committee discussing those reports and then voting. About 10 people from the public sat and observed. Public attenders are not able to speak, nor ask questions. Comments and questions from the public can be submitted to the staff in writing.
Certificate of Honor Program
In addition to the pins and certificates for all military who served during the Vietnam War era, staff reported to the FAC that they are seeking to identify and “pin” four (4) new special types of badges/lapel pins and certificates and each of those were discussed and presented. In the past these certificates were given out by a few of the Commemorative Partners but staff is now “rolling” them out on a nationwide basis. They are: (1)” former, living American Military POW” and if deceased presented to surviving spouse; (2) “accounted for” for immediate family members listed as missing; (3) “in memory of” for immediate family members who are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and (4) “deceased Vietnam Veteran’s surviving spouse” at the time of death a veteran who served in Armed Forces at any time from Nov 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975 (please note this timespan which was publicly presented for the first time). These certificates are requested through the over 10,000 Commemorative Partners (CP) across the country. Of the approximately 9.2 million who served during the time of the Vietnam War, approximately 7 million are still living and thus far about 1.4 million (20%) have been recognized and given pins/certificates. Examples of recipients from each of the 4 new categories listed here were presented to the FAC through slides and testimonies. One of those featured a program at the Nixon Library in southern California. For more details about statistics of certificates and Commemorative Partners please see the Committee’s website at: http://vietnamwar.50th.com.
CWG Recommendations, Discussions and Decisions (7)
#1 “Highlight various issues and problems facing Vietnam veterans today (e.g., healthcare, lack of housing, disabilities, suicide rates) at Commemorative Partner events.”
This first recommendation generated considerable discussion and finally met with its withdrawal. Based on feedback from local CP groups as well as prior discussions with the FAC, the CWG proposed for consideration a formal adoption of paying specific attention to the trauma, problems and social concerns which still plague Vietnam Veterans. There was support for highlighting these issues especially given by Tom Ridge, but in the end it was defeated for two major reasons: (1) that it was outside the Congressional mandate given by Congress which is primarily to thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families and thus not pay any particular attention to specific problems and crises; and (2) that other federal and state agencies already pay attention to these issues and have resources to provide answers and support, such as Department of Veterans Affairs. Since this was a public meeting, the FAC of the VWC wanted to make sure that it went on record to acknowledge that it agrees that these are major issues facing the country and government. It was interesting to listen to some of the discussion especially around PTSD and how WWII military leaders and soldiers first referred to the Vietnam veterans as “whiners.” Committee members thought keeping accurate records of suicides was not easy, nor reliable and therefore outside of its parameters, easier not to track. Later in the meeting this same discussion would repeat and continue itself in another recommendation.
#2 “Strengthen the text and focus of VWC public service announcements (PSA) on the Vietnam veteran issues outlined above. Focus on the veteran, rather than the Commemoration. If the story is compelling, TV stations likely will run the PSAs.”
After having dealt with the proposed focus above, this recommendation turned into one of how to get out the message and strengthen media strategies.
A review of previous PSAs was provided and some were launched as early as 2012 and are still running. The most successful has been “A Moment of Truth: Thank You for Your Service” which has been viewed over 2.3 million times. One which started in 2014 features actor Sam Elliot, another out this year had Honda’s public support and approval and a new one in production was presented. This was 7 minutes long and featured prominently at the beginning President Obama thanking soldiers and why it is important to do so. After this video was shown, a long discussion took place and it was pretty much Morton Dean who said that he thought it was not a good use of resources nor realistic to think that major television stations would use the PSAs. He said they could be used as background information so that stations and reporters would go out and find their own stories. And though one member pointed to the importance of social media, most of the discussion centered on tv, radio and print. Staff did indicate that they were following and creating images for UTube, Twitter and Facebook but there was no other discussion on these means. One member who belongs to a local Rotary Club said he could use the 7’ video at his meeting. Staff ended saying that they would keep the footage and make available to local CPs. It was troubling to hear some of the language of the video especially “how honoring the Vietnam veterans honors the war” and “join the nation as it thanks and honors Vietnam veterans.” The committee is aware of the division created by the war and puts much effort into not discussing that, rerouting topics so that no real discussion takes place. It sees itself as a healer for the nation and the soldiers who fought but came home in disgrace. The healing part is featured. Why the disgrace is silenced. Other parts of the communication strategy include a November release of a PSA from the director of the project mainly to traditional media outlets along with social media and on the VWC website. New marketing ads are being developed along with a new branding initiative. These were not fully discussed. Plans for 2017 include promotion of some of the 300 oral histories of Vietnam veterans into 30-90 minute tapes and, again, the primary focus will be to thank and honor veterans and their families.
#3 “Engage the top 2-3 (or 10) CPs that provide VWC the greatest reach and return on investment of time and energy.”
Staff reported that they have been busy in their “reachback” initiative to establish stronger links with the thousands of CPs across the country. Some of these CPs are actually military contractors and most of the others are affiliated with the DAR and local veterans organizations. But many of the CPs have not been in touch with the DC office and so staff are contacting them primarily so that the CPs will use commemoration materials, booths, speakers and thereby increase visibility. In addition, staff want to make sure they have accurate contact information and report activities that they might not be aware of. Experience reveals that the greatest return on investment comes from major corporations and their national advertising platforms. Rather than hosting events, corporations assist with the “national voice” for the project. One exception has been American Airlines which did host 11 separate events through which they honored and thanked 7,500 veterans and produced a PSA from the enhanced effort. The NFL was again mentioned as an organization through which most members thought more promotion would be possible. Staff gave the impression that there is much momentum around CPs and especially with multinational corporations.
#4 “Incorporate statistical facts as a backdrop to VWC messaging that include suicide rates among Vietnam veterans, as well as the number who are amputees, disabled, etc.”
It is curious that this subject was raised again and staff explained that they were compiling minutes, notes and interviews from previous meetings and discussions and were putting those into a recommendation for decision. Some of that discussion took place within their Internal Working Group. Staff clearly too mentioned that they were well aware of the limits and parameters of the Congressional mandate so perhaps they were trying to be consistent and faithful to prior deliberations. However, the outcome here was the same as before. Oddly enough Tom Ridge, who chaired the entire meeting, started this discussion by once again indicating how he thought this was important and by the end of the discussion indicated he thought he knew what the outcome would be and that it would be different than his early formulation. Ridge was saying that the project’s literature should not be afraid to treat and discuss these issues. He then suggested that statistics about these conditions could be provided without making them talking points. But, the result was that the focus would remain on thanking and honoring vets and their families. Some of the discussion centered on the difficulty diagnosing mental issues and whether they were war related. The vote by the FAC was to withdraw this recommendation which meant to not undertake. I must admit that as the committee was discussing the impact of the Vietnam War on US soldiers, I kept thinking about the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people, their land, their undetonated mines, their continued impact of Agent Orange on future generations. Not a single word was mentioned.
#5 “Pursue a corporate CP that would be willing to publish and distribute to public and private high schools and colleges a book that highlights ‘The Vietnam War Generation.’”
This was another interesting discussion. Staff reminded the committee that already under consideration has been a “Table Top Commemoration Book” but that this was still in discussion and no decision has been made. It was a reminder that if the book proposed here was undertaken, perhaps it could also be the “table top” version. The discussion then moved to: is it a book about the war? or is it a book about the commemoration? Most thought there were already many books about the war and that the book proposed here should be on the commemoration. Then the discussion turned to how staff would have to cooperate with Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) regarding contracting processes and fair/open competition. Then one member said, “Look, defense contractors made trillions off the war, they should be able to finance and donate to this project with no problems.” And, another mentioned that the project would lose control if it proceeded through FAR and that it might be better to organize internally and perhaps with a company which would then produce or publish it. Mark Franklin stated what he says at every meeting and perhaps for our benefit that “we are not educators” and are not producing lesson plans because this comment came after several mentioned the value of producing educational materials especially because so little about Vietnam is taught in public schools. As one said, “There are a few paragraphs of garbage about the war and that is all.” Franklin seems to think that educational materials are narrowly defined as course outlines and bibliographies. Most of the members I think view almost all of their materials as educational and much of their outreach is directed to schools and colleges. There were frequent references to academic institutions. By definition, Franklin can assert that their efforts are not strictly pedagogical but basically there is a lot of support for providing materials to schools and young people as will be seen in another recommendation. During this topic’s deliberation, the upcoming documentary by Ken Burns was mentioned. Staff have been in touch with him, no one knew precisely when it would be aired, but staff thought “it will be helpful.” Morton Dean indicated he was working on a film project as well but no further details were made. Then the discussion turned to what kind of final report does the project want to make? To where do all of their documents and resources get placed? Staff reported that the Library of Congress would be the repository and that the project is required to make a final report as well as financial accounting. So the book proposal fell into discussion about final reporting. This question plus the matter of how to finance a book and exactly what its primary focus will be meant that this recommendation was tabled and will come back at a later meeting.
#6 “Pursue the publication of articles highlighting the Commemoration in the NRA magazine.”
Because media strategies were already considered, this topic was processed quickly. In addition, other publications were mentioned such as “Echoes,” official U.S. Army newsletter distributed to 1.15 million subscribers. Staff mentioned that they have lists of hundreds of professional publications likely read by Vietnam veterans and so they will be contacting those in the coming year. Among them are: Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, Marine Corps Times, Defense News, Armed Forces Journal, Federal Times, Disabled American Veterans and Rolling Thunder. Some of the discussions at this meeting were to provide direction and priority for next year’s programming. Though the writing and placing of articles is an ongoing effort, steps will be taken to elevate visibility through more articles in the coming years. In addition, OpEds were discussed and it was reported that the director submitted OpEd pieces in 2016 to the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, LA Times and Washington Post but there were “no takers.” An article to “The American Legion” magazine was recently submitted but no reply yet but it has 2.3 million readers. “DC Military Magazine” is currently interviewing spouses of Vietnam veterans for its November issue. A 600-word OpEd was published by the “Military Times” on Aug 13, 2016. Staff hopes publications will be interested in the lives of FAC members since they are by in large Vietnam veterans.
#7 “Pursue two national spokespersons for the Commemoration; one who could connect with the Vietnam veteran, and one who could connect with the younger generation of Americans.”
Unfortunately I had to leave before this item concluded but staff indicated that they were researching the value of national spokespeople to build VWC’s national voice and no final decision of course has been made. Plans are underway to refine requirements and identify all legal and financial constraints. Staff also welcomed the participation of FAC members and also requested their cooperation to identify potential candidates.
This meeting was better attended and the agenda more engaging. Previous meetings have had fewer members and consisted of staff reporting with less discussion. There was no opportunity for me to ask anyone about the recent New York Times article which discussed how the website timeline has been problematic and featured interviews of people from our project.
Terry Provance, Sept 21, 2016
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