Vietnam veterans in Story County have established an association for residents who served during the conflict.
The newly formed chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) began meeting earlier this year. The group discusses challenges and other shared experiences of camaraderie unique to them.
"I had one guy tell me that he hasn’t told most of what he said [to me] to his own family," said Brett McLain, Story County Veteran Affairs director.
McLain said that while many veterans understandably wanted to distance themselves from the military after their experiences, it often helps them to talk about these experiences with others who went through the same things. These veterans develop a bond and understanding among one another that can’t be achieved with anyone else.
"When you’re in your 20s, you don’t think too much about your experiences," said John Kost, now 74 and president of the Story County VVA. "Fifty-eight thousand troops died in that war - and being a veteran it was a war - everyone had a role. Everyone gave something, whether you were in combat or worked in supply or behind a desk. Their families did, too."
Kost volunteered to become president because he knows that his experiences and those of his fellow veterans may be able to provide some assistance or comfort to other veterans struggling with things in their lives.
"I didn’t know this organization existed until I got a letter one day," said Kost, a Navy veteran who served on the U.S.S. Tonkin from 1963-65. "Being president was something I wanted to do to help guide this organization. There is so much that can be done in Story County. The potential is enormous."
One common issue McLain sees in veterans is their health. For example, there are 15 diagnoses directly related to combat for those who served in Vietnam, including exposure to ‘Agent Orange,’ a herbicide used to destroy enemy agricultural fields in Vietnam. The Veterans Administration helps veterans with screening and medical costs once it’s determined the medical issues were caused from serving their country and provided they meet the financial requirements.
McLain said that some veterans don’t realize they are eligible for benefits from the Veterans Administration, or they do not re-enroll despite any changes in their health.
"That’s the important stuff for me in this office - that we take care of all Vietnam veterans that we can," said McLain.
Kost and his fellow members in Story County meet every second and fourth Wednesday of the month, at 6:30 p.m., at the Story County Veterans Affairs Office (126 South Kellogg). Anyone who served during the Vietnam era is welcome. The group currently has 31 members and is looking into possibilities of raising funds. Kost is currently working on a possible event for this fall.
"We’re going to be active in all the Story County communities," said Kost. "The biggest thing is to have fundraisers so we can have the funds to help people out. All our members have the same goal - to help Vietnam veterans or any veterans that we can, along with their families."
Some of the ways the group plans to help includes contributing to rent, food or clothing. They plan to keep all money raised in Story County and partner with local businesses and individuals to hold events that will raise funds for their cause.
In addition to bi-monthly meetings and directly helping fellow veterans, members have already talked about helping to maintain memorials to the county’s veterans, like the one near Grand Avenue’s intersection with Lincoln Way in Ames.
The next meeting of the group will be held Thursday, Aug. 14, at 6:30 p.m., at the Veterans Affairs Building in Ames. Kost invites all Vietnam-era members to come out and see what the organization is about. Dues for the national Vietnam Veterans Association are $20 per year, which covers membership in the local branch.
"It might take a while for us to get organized and have an agenda at our meetings," said Kost. "But the bottom line is that [Story County VVA] is here to help Vietnam veterans and their families. We paid our dues, and now it’s time to celebrate what we did for the U.S. government."