VFW salutes community, seeks members
Trying to get war information out of veterans Allen Q. Jones and Tom McFadden is like pulling teeth.
There's a lot of military history between them, but -- like many who have seen war up close -- they choose to stay silent. One has to respect that silence as true Americanism.
Jones is a World War II veteran; McFadden served during the Vietnam War. So different, but so similar. They are comrades-in-arms and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, namely VFW Post 21 of Connellsville. The post recently celebrated its 95th anniversary.
The history of VFW Post 21 dates back almost as long as the national VFW, which was chartered in Pittsburgh in 1914. Connellsville's post was chartered in 1916. It is named for Walter E. Brown, the first Connellsville man killed in the Spanish American War, a short conflict against Spain that was fought in Cuba and the Philippine Islands. President Teddy Roosevelt gained fame during the war while serving with the cavalry's Rough Riders.
Brown was a member of the 10th Regiment of Pennsylvania. Many Connellsville men served in that regiment, including the late William E. DeBolt, who later served for many years as Connellsville Fire Chief.
When it first began, the VFW met above Swan's store (now City Office Supply) on North Pittsburgh Street. In the 1930s, meetings were held at the Collins Hotel (corner of Arch and Crawford Avenue). The post later acquired a building on South Pittsburgh Street, formerly known as The Crawford Tea Room and, later, Nancy's Beauty Salon. Today, the VFW building is on South Arch Street across from Scottdale Bank, where it's been for more than 40 years.
A lot has changed in America since the VFW began, but its underbelly hasn't. Americans are still patriotic, no matter what year it is. However, membership in organizations such as the VFW are dwindling. In 1991, when Post 21 celebrated its 75th anniversary, there were 634 members. Today, that number is about 320. Jones and McFadden, interviewed recently, were candid about the organization's future.
"We may have to join with other groups (such as the American Legion) to stay afloat in the future," McFadden said.
"Let's face it. We are dying out," added Jones, 87, a retired Connellsville Area school teacher who served with the Army's 717th Tank Battalion during World War II in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Jones has held many VFW positions, including state commander.
World War II veterans, who are all in their 80s or older, make up the local post's largest contingent, at nearly 150 members. Korean War veterans number about 50, and Vietnam veterans such as McFadden, about 90. The others are a smattering of those who served in the Persian Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jones noted that of 661 VFW posts in Pennsylvania in 1989, only about 500 remain. The number of veterans eligible for VFW membership today are far fewer than the days of World Wars I, II, Korea and Vietnam.
"During World War II, 27,000 Fayette County veterans served overseas; 1,500 of them from Connellsville alone," he pointed out. Membership in the VFW requires that veterans must serve overseas during a time of war or conflict. For decades after the war ended in 1945, the VFW's ranks were swelled by World War II veterans. Although servicemen and women who served in Korea and Vietnam joined, there were fewer overall who were in those wars. And those who have served in conflicts since then (such as in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan) have not been joining the VFW as steadily as those in the past, according to Jones and McFadden.
Despite the decline in membership, the local post continues to strive for what the VFW does best: patriotism and advocacy for veterans and their families.
The group meets monthly to discuss projects, which include raising funds for the two, $2,000 scholarships presented annually -- one to a Connellsville Area Senior High student; the other, to a Geibel High School student. The post sponsors the Voice of Democracy and Patriot's Pen programs, giving savings bonds to top students who speak or write about Americanism. Members participate in community activities, including parades, patriotic ceremonies and veterans' funerals.
Young veterans are encouraged to join the local post. "If you have served, you are entitled to everything the VFW offers," stressed McFadden, 63, a retired steelworker who served from 1966-69 in Vietnam, including during the Tet offensive. "We are here for comradeship as well as to lobby for veterans benefits."
VFW Post 21 is currently commanded by Donald "Glenn" Siple, a Persian Gulf War veteran who has held the position since 2004. Its longest continuous member is 88-year-old South Connellsville native Guy "Rick" Tressler Jr., who joined the post 68 years ago in 1943, when he was coaxed into membership by his late aunt, Ann Tressler, a member of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary.