By Ted Waddell
LIBERTY April 24, 2001 It was a long way from the fields of fire in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
But on Thursday, local vets turned out to welcome John F. Gwizdak, Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW), to Clarence Hoyt Post No. 9217, as the head of the national organization paid a rare visit to a VFW post in Sullivan County.
Accompanying Gwizdak was NYS Commander Robert Seagrave and Sullivan County Commander Rich Curry, commander of VFW Post 5911 in Roscoe.
Gwizdak, of Stockbridge, Ga., was elected Commander-in-Chief at the VFWs 101st National Convention, thus becoming the second Georgian to hold the prestigious top post.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1958 and retired 20 years later with the rank of captain. Gwizdak proudly served his country during three tours in Germany, including a rotational tour in Berlin, and in Vietnam with Co. E, 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
While in Southeast Asia, he started out as a heavy mortar platoon leader and advanced to assume command of Company E, based at Long Binh. His military awards and decorations included the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, four Bronze Stars (including one for valor) and the Purple Heart. He is an inductee of the Hall of Fame at the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School (OCS).
Gwizdak joined the VFW in 1977 and soon gained a reputation as a leader in veterans affairs.
I was invited by the state commander to talk to the veterans and thank them for what theyve done for America, said Gwizdak. Freedom isnt free, and it takes vigilance to maintain it.
Our mission is to honor the dead by helping the living, he said of the national focus. Were expanding our legacy from combat to community ... it permits America to have freedom as a household word.
During the luncheon provided by the local posts Ladies Auxiliary, Gwizdak talked to the assembled vets and auxiliary about legislative goals of the VFW: national security and the state of medical care in Veterans Administration hospitals.
I think the military has been reduced too much, he said. We need an active military that is in a defensive posture . . . a good defensive posture keeps you from having to be in an aggressive posture.
On the topic of VA hospitals, Gwizdak said, The system is not doing what it needs to be doing. Were on flatline budgets, and the veteran ends up at the bottom of the pile.
In his address to the vets and auxiliary, Gwizdak said that any surplus in the federal budget should be used to provide benefits for vets, including upgrading the VA hospital system.
According to their commander-in-chief, the VFW currently has an overall national membership of about 2.7 million individuals, including approximately 800,000 members of the Ladies Auxiliary.
We represent all veterans, added Gwizdak. Veterans are very special and unique people who make a difference in America.
NYS VFW Commander Robert Seagrave represents about 100,000 vets. He served during the Korean War from 1952-53 and saw bloody action at Chosun Reservoir with the 1st Tank Battalion of the 1st Marine Division.
It was 50-below-zero out there, so it was pretty tough, he recalled. It was a terrible war for both sides.
According to Seagrave, the VFW is a little behind on our membership, so the statewide organization is conducting what he called a roundup to get more vets signed up. At present, about 100,000 veterans belong to the VFW posts in NYS.
This keeps our membership strong, so when we go up on the hill in Washington, theyll listen to us, he added.
Rich Curry serves as commander of the Sullivan County VFW and commander of VFW Post 5911 of Roscoe, one of 12 VFW posts in the county.
He was on active duty during Desert Storm as a specialist E-4 assigned to the 7th Corps.
Its a great honor to have the national commander-in-chief come to visit us, especially a post in such a small county, he said.
Eric J. Nystrom, director of the Sullivan County Veterans Service Agency, attended the special event. His office maintains files on about 20,200 local vets, of whom more than half are deceased. The local veterans service agency provides help to surviving veterans, their widows and children.
We were very moved by his speech, said Nystrom.
Jack Simons, past NYS commander and present chairman of the state VFWs budget and finance committee, was also on hand to roll out the welcome mat for the national commander-in-chief.
The national headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States is at 406 West 34th Street, Kansas City, MO and can be reached at (816)756-3390. The Washington, D.C. office can be reached at (202) 543-2239.