Jess DeVaney can stack the accomplishments from his radio career favorably next to pretty much anyone in this market. He was a fixture in Phoenix radio in the '70s and '80s, had successful stints in markets such as Kansas City and San Diego, received recognition for his work from the Country Music Hall of Fame, landed voice gigs for commercials that aired nationwide and assisted prominent radio organizations on the music research side of the business.
Upon returning to his hometown, he joined Tucson music research outlet FMR in the early '90s and worked numerous shifts at KIIM FM 99.5 and for a time at sister station FM 97.5 during its brief flirtation as smooth jazz format The Oasis. Up until recently, folks in the building that houses KIIM and four other Cumulus owned stations knew him as the guy who showed up on weekends with his majestic Great Dane "Duke," an immense presence of a dog that some mistook for a horse.
But this isn't one of those stories about being fed up with the business for what it's become, or being rightfully frustrated with the way outlets like Cumulus and Clear Channel have decided to run their respective operations.
It's about what DeVaney started in 1998, a non-profit venture that far exceeds the value of being JD the DJ. He founded TOP, or the Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans humanitarian organization.
"We have five programs: veterans, family, humanitarian, education and personal effects," said DeVaney while working on returning a recovered personal effect to the family of a veteran. "This organization started out as a local Tucson thing. Now it's all over the U.S., and not too many from Tucson. It started with Tucson, Southern Arizona, Prescott, things like that, but now people come from as far as Maine and individuals who live outside the country."
The organization has sponsored numerous trips to Vietnam. The point is to help veterans come to terms with their experiences with the hopes it acts as a therapeutic occurrence that allows those affected to move forward.
"That's part of the problems of Vietnam and many veterans. They get stuck in the past and can't get out," DeVaney said. "When they leave Vietnam that's where they're stuck, at the age of 19. They ruminate and talk about it over and over again with other people who have lived that time in their dreams. Try to live in this moment. If you go to Vietnam today, it's a totally different place. A lot of people love to use a saying with TOP: 'I see Vietnam as a country, and not a war.' That's what I'm trying to do. How the foundation came about and why it almost seems like a different lifetime. Today the foundation has the same five programs, but it's evolved differently. We have done such tremendous ambassadorial work and assisted in a different phase of life for Americans."
The many trips have become adventures within themselves. In addition to coming to terms with their own personal struggles, TOP travelers have paid respect to those who endured the horrors of war first-hand, and to their relatives who remain in once ravaged villages. TOP makes it a point to engage in humanitarian missions to villages not served by other organizations. Even being the first organization to remain in the country available to immediately assist after the damage wrought by a recent typhoon.
"We try to do mostly projects nobody else will do," DeVaney said. "Many people know us. They treat us like a treasure. I've had people come up to me and remember me from years ago. I run into that frequently. They recognize me for my good works. I'd rather have that every day of the week than being recognized for JD the DJ."
DeVaney's radio career started as a sophomore in high school. That was interrupted by a tour of Vietnam before he returned to the States and embarked on the successes of his on-air profession. But he had a greater connection to the region that went beyond the effects of serving, and the way it ravaged many of his colleagues. DeVaney's grandfather, at one point a well-regarded coach for the Douglas, Arizona, School District, landed a job for the U.S. government in an education capacity in Vietnam in the 1950s.
"He helped build a huge soccer stadium which is still there today," DeVaney said. "Things were getting bad and they had to leave Vietnam. My interest in Vietnam goes back. I think it had some influence with me. I joined the Marine Corps during that time thinking I'd be helping the Vietnamese, and it could have been a continuation of my family history."
TOP has received international media recognition and has naturally been featured by a number of outlets locally, perhaps most notably by KOLD TV 13 news anchor Dan Marries, who joined the organization for two trips and featured those experiences in a documentary broadcast on the television station. Members of General William Westermoreland's family have participated in a trip, as has Le Ly Hayslip, who authored When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, a memoir of her recollections of Vietnam during her childhood. That trip is the focal point of a documentary scheduled for release in 2015.
''She brought so many people," DeVaney said. "Our bus was jam packed full of veterans who fought with and fought against. It was an incredibly poignant trip."
DeVaney hopes it's been poignant and beneficial for the many veterans who have participated.
"That is the motto of TOP. By helping other people, that is how I help myself," DeVaney said. "By helping veterans get back to their spot, and then they help the Vietnamese humanitarian-wise. This helping aspect is the key. If they can do that, they don't have to come back. They can do it in their communities and help veterans in certain ways. Then they can speak to people about their experiences."