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American Legion reaches out to younger veterans
American Legion Post 159, celebrating 10 years of service on Vashon this month, is broadening its focus and reaching out to Island veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The group first formed in response to 9/11 with 15 members and in recent months, thanks to a recent outreach effort, has grown to 50 members. The group’s mission has been service related all along, Commander Phil Volker said, but now that the membership numbers are strong, it made sense to consider how best to be of service moving forward. Welcoming and assisting vets who have returned from more recent tours of duty was the obvious answer.
“They come back one at a time,” Volker said. “There is no parade or anything. A lot just want to be private, to decompress. We would like to offer things they would like to get involved with when they are ready.”
Islander Christopher Gaynor, whose exhibit “Home of Record: Vashon and the Vietnam War” recently was on display at the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum, has been instrumental in this new effort. Gaynor, who served in Vietnam from January of 1967 through February of 1968 and is the post’s new vice commander, recalled that when he returned, he received no assistance, and he has made a personal commitment to assist those returning now.
“I have made a promise, taken on an obligation, to assist my brother and sister veterans because when I got out of the military, I did not get help or assistance,” he said. “Vietnam vets were much maligned, and I do not want to see that happen to the current crop of vets.”
Gaynor and Volker believe there are as many as a dozen men on the Island who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Legion can help with a variety of services, Gaynor said, from assisting with accessing their VA benefits to obtaining counseling.
The new vets can be hard to find, both men said, and to connect with them, the American Legion has relied on what Gaynor referred to as the “synchronicity” among the Sportsmen’s Club, Eagles, Kiwanis and Vashon Rotary.
Gaynor, who is 68, said his assumption is that younger vets aren’t likely to be attracted to fraternal organizations, however.
“Therefore,” he said, “social networking.”
Gaynor created a Facebook page for the local post a few weeks ago that is open to everyone and is beginning to gain visibility.
“I am hoping that veterans and their families and all the members of our Vashon community will feel free to post comments on our wall,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post.
Within the next month or two, he hopes to complete the next phase of this social networking endeavor by creating a second Facebook page. This one will only be open to Islanders who served in the first Gulf war, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
“It would be for younger vets who want to connect, specifically on Vashon,” he said.
It would be private, he noted, and the vets could use it to talk among themselves.
“It’s a shot in the dark,” he said. “But it’s free. That’s the beauty of Facebook.”
Currently, roughly 1 percent of the population serves in the military, Volker said, and contrasted this number to the era of the draft, when many more families contended with the prospect of a loved one going to war.
The draft may have been problematic, he said, but issues now — with such a small percentage of the population going to war — are problematic as well. It can be easy for people to say, “Oh, we’ll let them to take care of it,” he said.
Not wanting to follow that path, Volker noted members of the American Legion are learning more about some of the challenges that vets and their families face, including post-traumatic stress disorder and typical difficulties that spouses encounter.
This weekend, the American Legion is hosting a party to celebrate the post’s 10 years of service and to welcome vets home. The event, intended for veterans, their families and friends, will be open to “basically anyone on the Island,” Volker said.
“We’re hoping to see them there,” he said.
The American Legion party will take place from 2 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Vashon Eagles, 18134 Vashon Hwy. S.W. Free food will be served from 2:30 to 5 p.m. with a ceremony at 5 p.m. followed by cake and ice cream. For more information about the party or the American Legion, call Phil Volker at 408-7236.
The post’s Facebook page can be found at www.facebook.com/islandlegion.