Veterans continue to serve even after exiting the military
The veteran population includes some of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. The 2014-2018 censuses revealed that approximately 9,000 veterans reside just in Lycoming County. There is an urgency there and surrounding areas to address the needs of current, and former, men and women in uniform.
According to the Lycoming County Office of Veterans Affairs, veterans have sacrificed so much and witnessed the unimaginable, only to face adversity in returning to civilian life.
“There’s certainly a readjustment period,” said Mike McMunn, veteran service officer for the county’s Office of Veterans Affairs. “But there are valuable resources available like The Vet Center here on East Fourth Street [in Williamsport] that provides readjustment counseling for combat vets or those who may be struggling with returning to their families and communities because of PTSD and other psychological wounds.”
But all too often, McMunn added, veterans simply don’t know what free benefits they may be entitled to.
“Trying to deal with the VA can be daunting,” he said. “We are kind of an intermediary there. Filing claims, enrolling them in veteran’s health care, we do all of that, as well as, act as a resource for employment with CareerLink or other community-based facilities. They just aren’t aware of what’s available and sometimes can be taken advantage of by scammers who are charging money. We are part of the county government and there are no service charges.”
The organization’s website lists critical free services offered in the Executive Plaza location at 330 Pine Street, Suite 401,Williamsport, including compensation and pension benefit applications, veteran health care, education and GI Bill information, prescription enrollment and veterans’ widows benefits.
McMunn said that healthcare tops the list for veterans’ requests for assistance. The office assists in connecting individuals with treatment at places such as the VA Outpatient Clinic, 1705 Warren Ave., Suite 304,Williamsport
“There are so many things that can happen to a veteran while serving, so we work to get them treatment for things like hearing loss, traumatic brain injuries, wounds from shrapnel or parachute accidents,” he said. “We want to get them treated. We also work to connect them with the VA to assist elderly veterans and widows with paying for in-home care or nursing home care or assisted living care. Our veteran population is aging, as you can probably imagine, so that type of assistance is really necessary.”
Transportation is a big issue for local veterans and, because of the pandemic, many services have been put on hold. Oftentimes, McMunn said that veterans are referred to the veteran’s hospital in Wilkes-Barre or are required to see a doctor elsewhere, such as in Phillipsburg and Mechanicsburg.
“Not everybody may be able to drive,” he said. “And of those who can, the VA will reimburse mileage, but it’s an inconvenience and it’s difficult.”
The VA’s community-based outreach has been helpful in addressing transportation needs. Through The MISSION Act and the Community Care service, veterans can request medical care locally in cooperation with the VA.
Our local Veterans Affairs office is not alone in its efforts to meet the needs of the veteran population. In Lycoming County, countless organizations work tirelessly to raise awareness and funding to support veterans. Delegates from many of these organizations and groups meet monthly for a Veteran Council meeting.
“This serves as a clearinghouse and it lets everyone know what other veteran organizations are up to,” he said. “Our office sends a person there, as does the Vet Center and CareerLink. We try to do as much outreach through our office as possible by attending American Legion meetings and VFW meetings, but our outreach has been limited because of COVID recently.”
Although the LeRoy O. Buck VFW Post 7863 at 150 Shaffer St in DuBoistown was closed for several months because of the pandemic, the establishment continued essential services, such as the monthly Military Share program. Operating for nearly five years, Post Manager Angel Fortin said that the food distribution is a lifeline for the 475 families that receive meat, eggs, break, milk, vegetables, cereal, pasta, tuna and juice. Veterans, active duty soldiers,widows and widowers of veterans often find themselves deciding between medicine and food. Fortin said that the self-funded program, in partnership with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, alleviates some of that burden.
“The Buck” doesn’t stop with putting food on the table. They also help with garnering life-sustaining medication because it is crucial for this vulnerable population. Additionally, they accept donations of used (in good condition) or new medical equipment like wheelchairs, stair lifts and bedside toilets and distributes them to veterans or families of veterans who might not be able to afford the cost on their own. In addition, its Treats for Troops program encourages volunteers to collect and ship holiday packages to local soldiers who are serving in areas of conflict overseas. The boxes include hygiene products, puzzle books, candies, cookies and even footballs. This overseas outreach is a celebrated feature of the post’s outreach.
For Fortin, it isn’t just about providing food, medical equipment, holiday surprises and even assistance in paying the bills. It’s about the connection offered for these proud, yet modest members of society.
“That’s a very important thing for our veterans,” Fortin said. “To be able to socialize with someone that has had the same experience as them. To be able to talk through things they went through together. Most vets won’t sit and talk about their war experience, but they will with others who have had that same experience.”
To provide a space to make this possible, the DuBoistown VFW supplies Korean War Veterans with breakfast each month on the second Saturday, starting at 8 a.m. Those interested do not need to be a member of the establishment, but it is imperative to have served during the Korean War.
“We get between 60 and 65 veterans at our breakfast, but it’s been difficult because of the pandemic,” Fortin added. “With restrictions in place, and being older folks who are part of the most vulnerable, they don’t have a place to go where they can talk to people with the same experience. A lot of them are alone. This is their social outlet.”
What started at least 75 years ago in a small garage known as “The Little Vet,” the organization is making big things happen for veterans across the county.
There are more than 2,100 VFW Posts nationwide, according to vfw.org, working toward meeting a collective mission: “To foster camaraderie among United States veterans of overseas conflicts. To serve our veterans, the military and our communities. To advocate on behalf of all veterans.” Membership costs and financial contributions allow the oldest major war veterans’ organization to educate service members about VA benefits, provide training to VFW Service Officers on signs of emotional suffering, help to cover rent, utilities or groceries for military families and organizing morale-boosting “welcome home” celebrations.
Just east of DuBoistown, the VFW Post 3428 in Muncy, was shut down for a time due to COVID-19, but continued to deliver meals to keep the establishment up and running.
According to Post Quartermaster Charles Schrek, the club became a charter member in 1936 as the Muncy Valley Veterans of Foreign Wars, “a place for veterans to get together and take care of their families.” After several relocations, it settled at the rear of 12 North Market St., where it has remained since 1991.
Schrek, who served during the Cuban Missile Crisis, has been involved with the establishment since 1986 and is proud to be a part of a group that works on behalf of American veterans for lobbying for Congress. Volunteers there complete disability claims and provide phone service for veterans overseas, while supporting local organizations and groups like public libraries, sports teams, swimming pools and schools.
Its annual scholarship program for high school students is one way they are aiding with the success of the next generation.
“There are six scholarships each year, two $500 ones at Hughesville, two $500 ones at Muncy and two $500 ones at Montgomery for seniors that are going into a technical college,” Schrek said.
Each of the active members – all of whom must be a veteran of a combat war – are committed to the same mission: To honor the dead by helping the living. The club is always looking for younger veterans to one day take on the volunteer work now completed by older veterans. The membership demographic now spans from 21 years old up to 103.
The pandemic has created some uncertainties for the Muncy VFW, which typically holds chicken barbecues, Sunday night bingos, holiday programs and other fundraisers throughout the year. However, Schrek said that anyone in need can continue to contact the post anytime for assistance.
“When I came home, I wasn’t able to get a job right off, but these guys are in combat, being shot at. Their minds aren’t the same. They’re scared when they come home and it’s hard to transition back to a normal way of life. We have a service officer to help them take care of forms and get them headed in the right direction,” said Schrek.
Although the club is operating on restricted hours, the public is invited to take a look at the M42 Duster that is positioned in front of the VFW.
Schrek said, “A lot of people like to look at that and we don’t have a lot of memorabilia inside, but a lot of antique posters from World War II.”
To the west, another local chapter of a very familiar veteran nonprofit organization has been meeting its mission in Clinton County since 1919. The American Legion in Lock Haven supports a veteran population of 2,885, according to census information.
Chartered nationally by Congress in 1919, the American Legion is “the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization committed to mentoring youth and sponsorship of wholesome programs in our communities, advocating patriotism and honor, promoting strong national security, and continued devotion to our fellow service members and veterans.” According to legion.org, hundreds of local American Legion programs and activities help strengthen that mission “one community at a time.”
Second Vice Commander Daniel Mallory has been involved with the Lock Haven American Legion Post 131, 20 S. Grove St., for 22 years. According to Mallory, the location was established on July 22, 1919, in the name of Pfc. William Marshall Crawford, who was the first Clinton County soldier to be killed in active duty during World War I.
Mallory said that the American Legion exists to provide support to the community and all military members through financial means or in other ways. The Americanism Award is just one example of how Post 131 gets involved at the community level.
“These awards go out each year to seven middle school students who write an essay about what it means to be an American,” said Tammy Rogers, treasurer for the legion’s auxiliary. “Out of all those kids, we give out three first-place awards, two second-place awards and two-third-place awards. Each winner gets a monetary award and then each child that puts in an essay gets a certificate and a pin from the American Legion auxiliary.”
The Lock Haven American Legion also holds holiday parties for children, visits veterans at local nursing homes, hosts veteran’s dinners and steps in when one of their own faces hardship.
Mallory remembers his own experience during active duty and what followed. Enlisted from 1979 to 2003 in the United States Air Force, he served overseas in England, Germany, Spain and other locations as part of various operations before retiring after a final stint in Germany.
“I’m a 24-year veteran,” he said. “When you come back into civilian life, you need to feel wanted and needed and when you get out of the military, a lot of people lose that. We encourage any veteran to come in and talk to us. We’re here to help in any way that we can.”
Although the pandemic caused the Post to close their doors for three months, it has been able to reopen with restrictions.
“It’s slow, but it’s going in the right direction,” Mallory said. “Our veterans really need this.”