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News From The Past

Air Force News
August 31, 2000

Veterans Provide Positive Message
To Local Schools

by Karen Edge San Antonio Air Logistics Center Public Affairs 
KELLY AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFPN) 

 

Military veterans are taking the war on violence and drugs into San Antonio middle schools.

Many people may think children in middle school are too young to be mixed up in the drug and violence scene. But that's where an ounce of prevention comes into play. Veterans Against Violence and Drugs, known as VAVAD, want to get to children before they get into gangs, drugs or violence.

Many children are at risk of entering a gang because of their backgrounds. Study after study results in the same conclusions. Children who encounter racism, poverty, lack of a support network and, sometimes, media influences are likely to join gangs.

"Modern-day gangs collaborate together for anti-social reasons," said Steve Nawojczyk, a national expert on gangs and graffiti. "Gangs generally have a leader or group of leaders who issue orders and reap the fruits of the gang's activities."

Nawojczyk, author of "Street Gang Dynamics," notes that it's not illegal to be in a gang; the problem is that many gangs today, especially gangs with young members, break the law to provide funding for gang activities or to further the gang's reputation on the streets.

"Gangs may identify with a large city gang or remain local-turf oriented. Development of local intelligence, as well as pro-active events are a mandatory part of dealing with this problem," Nawojczyk said. "Schools must develop lines of communication with law enforcement officials in order to track and prevent gang growth and violence effectively."

This is where VAVAD comes into play. The purpose of the organization is to help assist the local school districts and law enforcement agencies reduce the effects of violence and illegal drugs within local schools. Statistics show that violence and drugs go hand in hand with gang activity.

The VAVAD program targets students in fifth through eighth grades. The theme of the VAVAD effort, "Commit to Life," is designed to help youth develop responsibility, good judgment and commitment to their families, schools, communities and each other, according to VAVAD's mission statement.

The VAVAD chapter here is a collaborative effort between armed forces veterans residing in San Antonio and the near vicinity, and is the sixth chapter of its kind.

The first VAVAD group was set into action when a veteran watching the news saw a man wearing a hat that said, "Vietnam vet and proud of it." The veteran wearing the hat had just seen his two sons shot in a candy store. His boys were the victims of a shooting during crossfire between two drug dealers.

Richard Montgomery was the veteran watching this all-too-common scenario unfold on the nightly news. As the story goes, Montgomery wanted to come to the aid of this Vietnam vet, who watched one son die and the other suffer horribly. So, Montgomery called every veteran he knew, and they called their friends. Hundreds of vets convened in Philadelphia and started getting drug dealers off the street corners. Then a second VAVAD chapter started up in Bakersfield, Calif., a third in New Jersey, then a fourth and a fifth.

Montgomery originally enrolled Medal of Honor recipients to help him fight the war on drugs and violence in Philadelphia. This is how Medal of Honor recipient and Vietnam veteran Richard Rocco -- who founded and directs the San Antonio chapter of VAVAD -- became involved with the program.

After going from state-to-state volunteering his time with other VAVAD organizations, Rocco brought the program home and put the San Antonio chapter of VAVAD into action. Now the non-profit organization has been up and running for almost a year. The collaborating military veterans, active-duty members and other organizations in San Antonio all share the same purpose -- which is both educational and charitable -- by teaching children in San Antonio the life values of patriotism, loyalty, honesty, integrity, respect and courage.

VAVAD works with the schools and law enforcement agencies. It also gives young men and women alternatives to a way of life full of drugs and violence, which for some is all they know.

Children who join gangs are often second- and third-generation gang members. Sociologists, as well as gang members, have isolated the need for identity, recognition, a sense of belonging, discipline, love and money as reasons to join gangs.

To teach children there are other ways to meet their needs, Rocco and VAVAD need volunteers to go into the schools and talk to at-risk children. They want young airmen, both male and female, to commit to these children and to become positive influences in their lives.

Several San Antonio middle schools have opened their doors to VAVAD, and now VAVAD needs volunteers to be mentors, teachers and role models in them.

Rocco knows why children choose gangs. Before he joined the Army, he himself was well on his way to a life in jail because of his own anti-social behavior. When he was a little more than 16 years old, he met a recruiter who turned his life around. The Army recruiter became Rocco's mentor.

"He was the first adult who ever listened to me when I talked," Rocco said. "He heard me, and I told him everything about me and why I was the way I was. He did not judge me. He reached out to me, and I owe him my life."

Rocco served his country proudly. The Army, in a sense an organized "gang," gave him the discipline, sense of belonging, money and other things Rocco had longed for and looked for in gangs.

A retired warrant officer, Rocco distinguished himself when he was a sergeant first class in the Army, assigned to Advisory Team 162, U.S. Military Assistance Command. He risked his own life to save three fallen crewmembers May 24, 1970. His heroic actions that day in Vietnam earned him the highest award bestowed on military men and women, the Medal of Honor. Now he still serves his country, a little closer to home, but he lets the medal speak for him. For Rocco, his Medal of Honor is proof that a juvenile delinquent can turn his life around and "be someone." But he said the age difference between the students and the veterans is a wide gap to bridge.

"We are old," Rocco said. "These kids want to know about combat and what we did in Vietnam, but after that we have nothing more in common -- in their eyes. We need people in uniform, closer to their age, whom they can relate to and look up to."

Rocco stressed the need for women in uniform. He believes that a female role model in uniform will definitely teach young women there is something they can do other than joining gangs. "Most of the violence on the streets nowadays is caused by girls," Rocco said. "The girls are the ones instigating a lot of the turf battles and really getting mean."

With 750 gangs known to exist in San Antonio and at least 22,000 gang members on the street, Sgt. Larry Ripley, in charge of the San Antonio Police Department's Youth Crimes Gang Unit, says prevention has to start early. Ripley said that, out of the 750 gangs, some may have only three or four members, but they are gangs nonetheless.

"The average age of a gang member ranges anywhere from 12 to 26 years old," Ripley said. "There may only be a handful of 10- to 12-year-olds in gangs, following their big brothers or sisters around, but they will join too, if their parents or someone else doesn't get involved in their lives."

VAVAD can be that someone else, and it needs volunteers to help wage the war against drugs and violence, which also means gangs.

Ripley has been with the SAPD for more than 18 years, most of which he spent in the homicide unit, so he said he knows both sides of gang violence and drug use. Now is the time to turn tomorrows gang members around, and according to Rocco, it's too late once they get involved in criminal activity.

 

2000, by Air Force News
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