With new funding, Somerset County Vietnam veterans organization is reorganizing and calling for new members
Somerset County Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter No. 587 was in danger of dissolving due to a lack of money and fewer members. Then, in 2017, a Westmoreland woman left the group an inheritance.
Mrs. M. Terhorst’s largesse energized the few remaining active members.
The Vietnam veterans want to reorganize the chapter. They are encouraging veterans who served during the Vietnam era (1961 to 1975) who are members to become more involved, those who have let their membership lapse to become active and those who have never joined, but are eligible, to give it a try.
The chapter is holding a free dinner event at 6 p.m. Thursday at Olde Towne Bakery & Cafe in Somerset for members in good standing and invited guests to gather information to help the group move forward. The dinner, called “Re-organizing Last Stand Sit Down Supper,” will be paid for by the inheritance. “The chapter struggled financially for decades,” said Steve Miller, an active member and legal counsel for the chapter. “That situation was made worse by the theft of money by our bookkeeper that took several years for reimbursement.”
The former bookkeeper’s last payment was made in March, according to the Somerset County clerk of courts.
The organization actually became dormant for a few years.
We were “very grateful and surprised to discover Mrs. Terhorst made such a generous gift and we were fortunate to be able to sell the property quickly for a decent price,” he said.
The first parcel was given solely to the Vietnam veterans organization. The second parcel was given to the veterans organization and two churches. The three groups have an equal interest in that property and their attorneys are working out how best to handle the disposition of the nearly 47 acres.
Since the property was bequeathed to the organization in October, the organization has held two special membership meetings to discuss the gift and to “bring everybody up to speed” about selling the property, said chapter President Joe Kennick.
He was hoping more members would turn out for those meetings.
“This is the chapter’s money and the members need to discuss what they want to do with it,” he said. “We have to reorganize and we need to establish some meetings.”
The infusion of money means “no more work details or fundraisers,” he said. The organization now is about supporting members and deciding how best to use the money to serve veterans and the communities where they live, he said.
“We are now in a financial position to support some select charities and perhaps provide some financial incentives in other areas,” Miller said. “We have no firm plans at present and are hoping to get a larger number of this chapter’s members actively involved in that decision-making process.”
In 1991, when the county chapter was formed, there were 180 members, Kennick said. Members subsequently dropped out, moved or died. There are now 49 on the roster.
Kennick was one of the organization’s founding members in 1991 and has been vice president and president for many years. He is president for the second time.
It was his idea for the “last stand” supper as a way to reach out to Somerset County Vietnam War veterans and their families and obtain phone numbers, addresses and emails so they can participate in deciding how to use the money.
Miller said the group’s plans for the money include dedicating a small portion to maintain the chapter administratively.
“We are also looking at dedicating a portion to be used for the direct benefit of chapter members — historical tours, a summer picnic and winter banquet are a few of the activities under consideration,” he said.
Miller said the organization’s members do not believe their service to the country and community ended with their term of enlistment.
“The largest portion of the funds we hope to dedicate to charitable work in the community and to establishing a fund for making monetary awards to veterans, their children and/or their grandchildren to help defray costs of postsecondary education whether that be college, university, trade or technical schooling,” Miller said.
Educating youth is important to the organization.
“One of the things near and dear to me is helping to and hoping to educate younger generations. This chapter is fortunate to have members who served in Vietnam for the decade covering the early ’60s through the early ’70s, and we are able to recount on a personal level not just our in-country experiences, but the social and political evolution we lived through both before and after our Vietnam War service.”
He foresees the chapter being active for at least seven more years, so the group is making its financial calculations for that period.
“Given the nature of this organization, it is inevitable that ultimately it will cease to exist,” Miller said. “We are not like the VFW or the American Legion; although, both are worthy organizations, membership in this organization is limited.”
The group cannot count on newer, younger members to step up and carry on its legacy, he said.
“We are, so to speak, a last man’s club since the bulk of us were gone in early 1973 and the absolutely last of us were lifted off the (U.S.) embassy roof (in Saigon) in 1975,” Miller said.
Vietnam Veterans of America was chartered by Congress.
“It is my understanding that the chapters of that organization are open (only) to all veterans who served during the Vietnam War era,” said Dan Kinsella, director of Somerset County Veterans Affairs.
“They really do great work,” he said of the Vietnam vets. “They have been a great asset at getting donations and helping get benefits for the vets.”