The Vietnam War may have ended 38 years ago, but local veteran Bob Barnas is rallying the troops – this time for a new chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America in Gainesville.
Florida currently has 22 chapters of the non-profit organization dedicated to getting benefits to veterans and changing the public perception of the war. Six months ago, after Barnas asked questions about tax benefits and organizations for fellow Vietnam veterans, decided Gainesville’s veteran community could benefit from a local chapter.
“While I could get information from our local veterans organizations, I wasn’t getting what I wanted specifically from several Vietnam veterans,” said Barnas, who is also a High Springs city commissioner.
The first meeting is Wednesday at 6 p.m. at American Legion Post 16, 4701 NW 6th St. in Gainesville.
The chapter will meet monthly and provide veterans with opportunities to find tax and health care benefits and connect with people they served with.
The Gainesville chapter is one of Florida’s five emerging chapters. While there are more than 70,000 members nationwide, Barnas needs 25 North Florida veterans to show their discharge papers at the first meeting to certify their service, or else the chapter will not become official.
For the past two months, Barnas has set up a tent with memorabilia, uniforms and flyers at veteran associations meetings like the American Legion around the area to draw interest. He’s gained one to two new members a week and hopes to see anywhere from 25 to 50 veterans at the first meeting – a dinner with hot dogs, hamburgers and soft drinks.
President of Vietnam Veterans of America Florida State Council Ben Humphries said more people want to join the VVA as they approach the retirement age. He also sees more veterans willing to join as the war that once divided the country is generally more tolerated.
“My philosophy is every member that we gain, that means another veteran is going to be able to get help, and of course that veteran knows other veterans, so we have that reach out to the veteran community,” Humphries said.
VVA isn’t just about influencing veterans – it’s also about informing the community about the war. If asked, veterans from the new chapter will go into schools around the Gainesville area and into the University to talk about Vietnam.
“The books today that they’re teaching… have very little in them about the Vietnam era,” Humphries said. “And it’s sad…I feel like it’s one of the most divisive conflicts that we’ve ever been involved with that pretty much made the nation more aware of what war truly was.”
Jim Lynch, former veterans service advisor of Alachua County, will be one of the new members. After hearing about the new chapter from Barnas at an American Legion meeting, Lynch was excited to bond with other veterans.
“When we came home back in the ‘60s from Vietnam, we didn’t get a very welcome reception, so I kind of put all my military service thoughts away in the back of my mind and put all my stuff that I brought home from Vietnam and shoved it up in the attic and forgot about it,” Lynch said.
For many years, he didn’t tell anyone he was a veteran.
“So now, it’s much more acceptable,” Lynch said. “And it’s nice to have a bunch of guys who have similar experiences and share those.”