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Finding 25 Vietnam Vets who'll come forward is a job Upper Shore group, finally formed, offers sensitivity to men who need it.


EASTON -- It doesn't add up. But then it's not really a matter of arithmetic.

If there are 6,000 to 8,000 military veterans of the Vietnam war era living on the Eastern Shore, why was it so difficult to find 25 of them to form a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America?

"[Vietnam] vets are not joiners," said Paul Childers, a Tilghman Island resident and Army veteran who did the standard 12 months in Vietnam in 1969-70. "They just stay in their own little shelter. They don't want to be a part of anything."

Sometimes subjected to ridicule when they returned stateside from an unpopular war, many Vietnam veterans tried to put their military experiences behind them. And part of the attempt to re-enter civilian life meant staying away from conventional veterans' organizations.

"Maybe it's because some of us have inferiority complexes," said John Higgins, an Air Force veteran who lives near Easton and did his year in Vietnam in 1967-68.

Loners with complexes. Double trouble. That's what Sonny Booze, a veteran of the Tet offensive, said he encountered when he tried for nine months to form a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter on the Upper Eastern Shore.

Federal budget constraints were forcing the Department of Veterans Affairs to pull back the counselors it was sending onto the Shore, said Mr. Booze, and veterans with serious war-related emotional problems risked losing the support they had grown to rely on.

Mr. Booze, who lives in Caroline County, persisted, posting leaflets "anywhere that anybody would let me," announcing that he wanted to get a group of veterans together to help themselves and their families.

For a group of Vietnam-era vets to get formal recognition from the national VVA, it must have a minimum of 25 members, said Jack Clark, national vice president and the head of membership.

There are 580 active chapters throughout the country. with membership ranging from 37,000 to 45,000. In Maryland, which has 171,000 Vietnam-era vets, there are six active chapters with another seven forming, said Adolph Gardner, VVA state council president.

The VVA was created 12 years ago to address needs of Vietnam veterans, including assistance with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange, as well as to represent the vets in Washington.

Underlying the VVA goals is the message that veterans should not be ashamed of having been in the military during the controversial war, said Mr. Clark.

"We want people to be able to say, 'I'm a Vietnam veteran and proud of it,' " he said. "There are a number of vets who have never found out it's OK to say they're vets."

On the Upper Shore, the 25th member finally signed up -- on Memorial Day -- but not before Mr. Booze had nearly abandoned his efforts. "I came close to burning out on this, trying to get these guys to come out of the bush," he said.

In the meantime, a similar move had been under way to start a VVA chapter on the Lower Shore. Based in the Salisbury-Princess Anne area, the group has been able to get more than the 25 members enlisted and should be chartered soon.

Even though Mr. Booze had begun working sooner at setting up a chapter, the Salisbury area group was able to claim distinction as the first Shore VVA chapter. That's OK with Mr. Booze, he said, because veterans up and the down the Shore need all the support they can get.

So far, the Upper Shore group has found a major source of support in Octavene H. Saunders, executive director of the non-profit Neighborhood Service Center Inc. in Easton.

Ms. Saunders has offered her facility for VVA meetings and a private room to house homeless veterans.

She said her desire to help has grown out of the tragic death of her brother. A decorated Vietnam veteran wounded twice in battle, he killed himself at her home in Cambridge because he was suffering from emotional war scars, Ms. Saunders said.

"I guess I'm doing this because I like to help people and because I loved my brother," she said.

At a recent meeting, Mr. Booze was named president of the Upper Shore group, with Mr. Childers vice president, Mr. Higgins treasurer and Marvin "Matt" Matthews secretary.

One of the first orders of business was scheduling a picnic in an Easton park where members hoped to raise money by selling VVA shirts and hats. Representatives also plan to be at the State House in Annapolis today where Gov. William Donald Schaefer is to proclaim 1992 as the "Year of the Vietnam Veteran."

Picnics and ceremonies aside, members said, the group's mission is to find funding to offer counseling and housing to vets in need.

"This is not a social group where you come to be entertained," said Mr. Matthews, who spent two tours in Vietnam in the Marines.

"We have a lot of recovering alcoholics, people who have had drug problems, who've been in jail. There's no Rambos. What you'll see is a lot of sensitive men who need each other."

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