Two Decades and a Wakeup

Editor's Note: This week's news about Donald Trump shaming vets with PTSD got me thinking, so here I go again! Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/
 

Two Decades and a Wakeup
In the winter of 1988, I was approached by a cameraman for the local CBS affiliate in Seattle, WA, with an extraordinary request. Knowing that I was a vet and had experience in non-profit fundraising, he wanted to know if I would help him raise money to send eight Vietnam Vets and their spouses, plus two psychiatrists, and two cameramen to Vietnam to film a documentary about PTSD. 

Needless to say, I was intrigued. He then told me the rest of the story. These eight combat vets, representing all branches of the military, had been in counseling with two Veterans Administration psychiatrists for the last several years and they were "stuck." By that, I mean that they all had severe PTSD, and were not getting any better. Throughout the years they had been meeting with the two doctors, they had been able to isolate the moment when the trauma first occurred, but that's where they got stuck. They couldn't shake the memory and the images of those horrible moments in their everyday life, and it was crippling them.

The Group
I asked to meet with the group and the two psychiatrists to gather my own impressions before I committed to helping them. When I did so, I was immediately impressed with both the skill of the two doctors and the overwhelming feelings of pain coming from these eight people. Even after 20 years, their experiences were as fresh as if they had happened yesterday. One of the psychiatrists, Ray Scurfield, put it to me this way, "Have you ever had a truly horrifying nightmare that lingered long into the next day?" I replied in the affirmative and his response really hit home, "Just imagine that feeling occurring every day for 20 years and you will have some sense of what these people are going through." I signed on immediately.

Fundraising
The details of the project made it a most exciting challenge for me. In 1988, the US did not recognize Vietnam as a country, so travel had to originate in Canada. Also, foreign visitors were not common in Vietnam at that time; only 20,000 in 1988 and mostly Russian. As a result, Vietnam demanded full payment in advance for all 20 people traveling and staying for the projected two-week project in-country. That meant we had to raise $250,000 ($500,000 in 2016 dollars) in cash and send most of that to the Vietnamese Government before they would even approve any visas or make any hotel or travel arrangements.

The first questions that need to be asked and answered in any fundraising situation are:

  1. Why is this important?
  2. What are you attempting to do, solve, create, etc.?
  3. Who will benefit from this endeavor?
  4. How much will it cost?
  5. Is any other organization doing the same thing?
  6. Why is it urgent to do this now?

Who Cares?
If those six questions can be answered well in a short written precis, then the next big question, "who and where are the donors" for such an undertaking? I had no doubts about the ability to answer the six questions; I was more concerned about finding the people willing to donate to it. We also had a time crunch; they wanted to make the trip in the summer of 1988 - only six months away!

Nuts and Bolts
My first thoughts went toward corporations; after all, 2.7 million men and women served in uniform in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975, and many of those people worked within companies that had assistance programs. But first, I decided that we could use an endorsement and, knowing the CEO of the local PBS affiliate, KCTS9, we went to meet with him and show him a demo videotape of the vet group in one of their weekly interactions. At the end of the 15 minutes, he turned to us and dropped a bomb on us; "We will not only endorse this, but we will make a commitment to air this as a 60 minute special on this station." It turned out that they were also creating a broadcast piece on PTSD and its relationship with homeless people in Washington State. They saw our production as an excellent complement to their story, and they wanted it done by Veterans Day 1988! The #6 checkbox for urgency got filled in right away.

Another basic tenet of fundraising is that 80% of the goal has to come from about 20% of the donors; keep in mind that the internet was still several years away and the concept of Kickstarter campaigns and crowdfunding did not yet exist. That meant we needed to raise $200,000 from about 15-20 entities. Being a longtime member of Seattle Rotary and knowing a good number of the 900+ members, I called a few executives that I knew at Boeing, US West, Weyerhaeuser, the local CBS affiliate, and some of the larger foundations to get a read on their interest in this project. The response was very positive, and within three months we had received eight gifts of $25,000 each. Then we went to the Unions and finally to the Washington State National Guard for the last $50,000. Most of the unions had Vietnam era vets populating their membership and responded positively, but we got laughed out of the room by the General of the WA State National Guard. He responded much like Donald Trump did this week on the subject of PTSD. (At the time I was struck by his reaction; to him, it was a mental problem that some people just couldn't handle, and that he thought that the military didn't want to recognize it and its involvement in our project would run counter to its doctrine.)

Bon Voyage!
The group left Seattle for Vancouver, BC in mid-August 1988 and landed in Hanoi, Vietnam, to a big surprise - children and local people waving American flags! The group was stunned, and one of the cameramen even caught one members' tearful reaction, "We didn't get this much of a welcome when we returned to the US in 1968."

The Vets and Their Stories

I can vividly remember the names of the vets in the group, but I will only use their first names here. Next week, I will lay out their individual stories and if the trip was a success.
 

Next Week: More Two Decades and a Wakeup