2012-11-07 / Front Page

Vet groups changing, but needs remain

BY MARGARET WHITMER
Reporter


Every year Maple Valley Elementary in Sandusky salutes veterans with a special music program performed by students. This year's Veterans Day Assembly is Nov. 9 at 10 a.m. In this photo taken in 2011, veterans showed their appreciation to students by handing out miniature flags at the conclusion of the program. Carl Bolton (center), then a kindergarten student, proudly carries one of the flags given out by George Gillam (right), and Susan Franzel (next to Gillam). (Photo by Eric Levine) Every year Maple Valley Elementary in Sandusky salutes veterans with a special music program performed by students. This year's Veterans Day Assembly is Nov. 9 at 10 a.m. In this photo taken in 2011, veterans showed their appreciation to students by handing out miniature flags at the conclusion of the program. Carl Bolton (center), then a kindergarten student, proudly carries one of the flags given out by George Gillam (right), and Susan Franzel (next to Gillam). (Photo by Eric Levine) When David Steeler of Marlette finished his tour of duty in Vietnam, he wanted to continue to help veterans and serve his community by joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

He got a chilly reception.

“We were told, ‘We don’t want you Vietnam veterans here, Vietnam wasn’t a war,’” he recalls. “A lot of Korean veterans didn’t want anything to do with us.”

Dennis McIntire of Croswell had a similar experience.

“When we came back from Vietnam, we were told if we weren’t World War Two veterans, we didn’t belong,” he said.

Jeff Lyall in Port Sanilac agreed. “Veterans groups didn’t quite know how to accept (Vietnam vets). That war was different from World War Two.”

But as the number of active veterans from the WW II and Korean conflicts began to dwindle, that changed.

“They started begging for us and we said to hell with you,” McIntire remembers.

The bitterness simmered for years.

But there was still much good work for veteran organizations to do and finally the torch was passed.

“Viet vets have been gradually taking over for the last twenty years,” said Commander Ron McCanham of the Peck American Legion.

Today, about half of vet organization members served in Vietnam and hold leadership positions.

Steeler is Vice Commander of the Marlette VFW Post; McIntire is Commander of the Croswell American Legion; and Lyall is Commander of the Port Sanilac VFW.

“Vietnam vets are in command positions not only at local posts, but at state and national levels,” McIntire notes.

Steeler added, “That whole landscape has changed.”

Today, membership is holding steady, although – as is the case with many older clubs – only a handful may show up at monthly meetings and make themselves available to organize and participate in important activities.

The Croswell Legion has about 250 members on the books, but only about a dozen regularly participate. The Legion recently absorbed many members of the Lexington VFW, which closed its post last year.

“Most of them had dual membership, anyway,” he said. “The Legion is doing fine.”

Along with membership, the image that vet organizations sometimes have also is changing.

“We’ve worked for years – and I think we’re succeeding – in getting past the image of a bunch of old guys getting drunk and swapping war stories,” Steeler said. “The truth is, you won’t hear a combat vet talking about combat. If you do, he’s either lying or it wasn’t a combat.”

The Marlette Legion Hall today is smoke and alcohol free and open to families.

“We’re not saying people who rent the hall can’t have alcohol. We’d prefer they didn’t smoke, but we know how it is to want a cigarette,” Steeler said.

The Marlette VFW will be holding a Family Open House from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10 at its hall, 2942 N. Main St., to showcase the many things they do, said Sergeantat arms Ron Coltson.

“Whether you are a veteran, are related to a veteran or know a veteran, you are welcome,” said Coltson, emphasizing it is open to residents throughout the Thumb, not just those in the Marlette area.

Besides snacks and a time to socialize, there will be much information about vet issues, including suicide awareness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and vet and health benefits. There will be a coloring contest for children.

“Helping our local veterans should be a community effort,” Coltson said. “Family and friends are often the first to notice a vet is having trouble, but sometimes it’s only realized after it is too late. Come pick up information that could save a veteran’s life. And come say hello and find out what the VFW is about.”

Vet organizations unanimously agree that the most important thing they do is honor the men and women who have laid down their lives in service to their country.

It is they who will lead local tributes this Veteran’s Day - Sunday, Nov. 11 – as they have always done.

They also provide the honor guard and firing squad at military funerals.

“That is something we take very seriously,” Coltson said. “We always make sure we have a full complement at funerals, because that’s the last that we can do for these guys.”

The groups provide flags and wreaths for military graves throughout Sanilac County every spring before Memorial Day.

This year, for the first time, the Croswell American Legion will have a color guard marching in the Remembrance Day Parade in Sarnia, Ontario.

“The Royal Canadian Legion comes over every year for the Independence Day Parade,” McIntire said. “This will be the first that we plan to reciprocate.”

Their activities hardly stop there. Donations from the Legion’s annual

March Poppy Sale goes the Sanilac County Veterans Administration emergency relief fund. Donations also help vets in emergencies.

“Once they went to a vet whose house had burned down,” McIntire said.

Legion posts collect lap blankets, toiletries, clothing, books, puzzles and other amusements to send to the Veterans Administration hospitals in Saginaw and Grand Rapids. They contribute to Michigan’s Own Veterans Museum in Frankenmuth and the Whirlwind Lodge, a vacation spot for veterans west of Trout Lake in the Upper Peninsula.

Proceeds from the VFW’s poppy sales go to the VFW National Home in Eaton Rapids, MI, where widows and orphans of vets may live full time, said Lyall of the Port Sanilac Post.

Vet groups can always be tapped to aid non-veteran causes, too – everything from blood drives to holiday fireworks displays. Money from bingo games, fish fries and dinners go out to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, local school scholarships and many others.

The Croswell Legion and former Lexington VFW are especially proud of a scholarship fund started for the 10 members of Croswell- Lexington’s Little League Softball team, who brought home the 2011 World Series World Championship in Kirkland, Wash., in 2011.

Halls are rented to raise funds and lent for charitable causes.

The Marlette Legion hosts a senior meal site in their hall. Marlette also has started a library of collected or donated books on military history and is building a display case for uniforms and military memorabilia.

The VFW offers the Voice of Democracy oral essay contest for high school students and the Patriot’s Pen written essay for middle school students.

Sandusky VFW members will be at Maple Valley Elementary Friday, Nov. 9, handing out flags to the children, as they do every year, said Post Commander Kevin Hale.

The support is reciprocal, Hale emphasized.

When the Sandusky VFW moved to a new building, they doubled its size, adding a kitchen, bathrooms, and an office and storage area. The community raised $24,000 in three months to help.

“We’ve had a lot of support from community,” Hale said. “We wouldn’t have a VFW without them.”

The only problem – and vet groups say it is a big one – is not enough boots on the ground.

While membership is stable, the number of active members willing to pitch in is wanting.

The Sandusky post has about 110 members, but only about 10 regularly volunteer to do everything.

Other posts report the same problem.

“It isn’t numbers so much as workers,” said Lyall in Port Sanilac. “The new members we do attract seem too busy.”

Port Sanilac finally had to sell its hall because there were not enough people willing to clean, set up, maintain and rent it. They now meet in the community center.

“If we’re not able to rent the hall, it’s too expensive to keep it,” Lyall said. “It was hard to sell it, because our members actually built it and we had fundraisers to pay it off.”

The Lexington VFW also had to close and Port Sanilac absorbed some of Lexington’s members, Lyall said.

While Vietnam veterans have stepped up to fill the breech left by a dwindling number of older veterans, younger veterans – those from the Afghan campaigns, for example, just don’t seem to be that interested - at least not now.

“Times have changed,” Lyall said. “People just don’t join groups as they used to. Yet wars continue to be fought and veterans continue to be wounded and killed. The needs are still there. If we dwindle away, much will be lost.”

Commander Ron McCanham of the Peck American Legion is a Vietnam veteran and has been a member for 39 years.

“When I joined I was young; now I’m the oldest,” he said. “I understand young people are busy like I was, working and raising families. We have a few from more recent conflicts, but they don’t actively participate.”

Coltson said the Marlette post has been actively campaigning to attract younger members for some time, knowing how urgent a cause it is.

“I’d like to see it get better. If we could get more members, that would help,” he said. “We work at it. Some accept it, some don’t.”

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