Rick Weidman can walk onto a stage and sense when he’s facing a crowd of Americans who think they have no reason to care about Vietnam veterans.
Weidman has been advocating for his fellow veterans nearly all his adult life. He knows how to change the mood of a room.
He starts by asking people to stand.
Stand if you’re a veteran, he says. He rattles off the wars and conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, World War II and everything in between.
Stand if your mother or father served.
Stand if your kid served.
Stand if your aunt or uncle served.
Stand if your brother or your sister served.
By the time he’s done with the list, usually more than 90 percent of the people in the room are on their feet.
Now, they’re ready to talk about Vietnam.
“The key is this,” he told me in a phone interview from his office in Washington. “You have to understand that the men and woman who serve our country are not ‘them’ and ‘they.’ They’re ‘us.’
“I tell people all the time, ‘they are not separate from you and your life. They come out of your community, and they return to your community. It’s a covenant between the American people and those who serve. We need to honor that sacred obligation.'”
Weidman is executive director for policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, which has just joined a class action lawsuit in Hartford against the armed forces.
Their argument: thousands of Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before it was a recognized illness and were wrongfully discharged because of it.
Their demand: upgrade the veterans’ discharges so that they qualify for benefits and the medical coverage they deserve.
Vietnam veteran John Shepherd Jr. filed the original lawsuit. His legal team is with the Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic. (Full disclosure: My stepdaughter is a Yale law student who works for another clinic in the same organization, but she is not involved with this case.)
Weidman says he understands the government’s resistance.