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Veterans of Foreign Wars: Changing lives

VFW hosts servicemembers and their families at the Tacoma Rainiers

Veterans of Foreign Wars treated servicemembers and their families to a Tacoma Rainiers game July 5. Photo credit: Jeff Clarke

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You remember First Blood, the original 1982 Rambo movie. John Rambo drifts around the States without a single friend, and when the harassment finally triggers his PTSD, he goes on a rampage. Finally he gets a single scrap of cold comfort from his former commanding officer - who offers to take him into custody without being shot by the local police.

If veterans of overseas conflicts sometimes feel a bit like no one cares, they can rest assured that Army Master Sgt. Traci Williams, Air Force Senior Master Brad Pieratt and Air Force Master Sgt. Elmer Clark do care. Williams and Clark ran a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) information table at the July 5 Tacoma Rainiers game, which the VFW Department of Washington purchased 500 tickets for servicemembers and their families.

"Some people have the idea that the VFW is a bunch of old guys sitting around in bars, talking about Viet Nam and Korea," said Williams. "The average age at this tailgate party was about 24." Servicemembers and families enjoyed hot dogs, hamburgers, soda and chips before the game and fireworks after, and the VFW information table was hopping.

The VFW is the largest U.S. organization of combat veterans, with about 1.5 million members, and its influence in Washington, D.C. is not small. For example, Williams pointed out, in the last few months some servicemembers returned from Afghanistan and Iraq to find that their tuition assistance was being stopped due to the sequester. The VFW intervened strongly on Capitol Hill, and tuition assistance was reinstated.

Clark has commanded a VFW post in Washington state, as well as served as a district commander in the other Washington. Ask him about the veterans helped by VFW, and his eyes light up. "One young man was suffering from PTSD, but had been in less than two years, and couldn't get benefits," he began. He compassionately ticked off the servicemember's problems on his fingers - as well as the steps that the VFW had taken to secure the resources needed. "You have to have overseas combat experience to actually be a member of the VFW, but we help any veteran," he finished with gusto.

The VFW intervenes to provide support in good times and bad. VFW Post 91 in Tacoma, commanded by Clark, was the post that rallied around the family of Robert Bales in 2012. He said he got a "lump in his stomach" when he heard about the Kandahar incident, getting "violently ill" when more evidence came out later. But the VFW realized that the family was the "collateral damage," and provided full support. Family spokesman Lance Rosen said at the time, "The support they've shown for the Bales family at this hard time is an act of kindness and a much appreciated blessing. It means a lot."

For servicemembers who have run into red tape, who don't know their way through a benefits process, or who could just use a friendly ear, VFW members are on full alert.

Master Sgt. Williams, who helped organize the July 5 Rainiers tailgate party, is chairman of VFW National Military Services in Washington state and is herself a veteran of no less than four overseas conflicts - Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Kosovo and Haiti. The huge "Heroes in the Ballpark" event was arranged for 500 members of the Warrior Transition Battalion, Fisher House and Naval Base Kitsap. "We felt that these warriors needed a day away from the hospitals/work to spend with their families. We wanted the Ranger to attend this event and see what the VFW does for the community."

Cheney Stadium has placed a POW/MIA seat directly behind home plate. The seat is a solemn reminder that we as a nation still have a verified prisoner of war, and more than 83,000 missing from conflicts dating back to WWII. The seat remains unoccupied for all games in honor of them.

For more information about how the VFW can help you and/or your family, contact The Department of Washington VFW at 253.922.2114 or Master Sgt. Williams at 206.818.7856.

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