Saturday, May 24, 2008

County News/Thom Caya

Bill Johnson, Jeremiah Miller, Mike Felske and Ted Westling were sworn in as officers of Waseca VFW post 1642 Monday night. Miller, Felske and Westling are Iraq war vets.

Young vets are last hope for VFW, Legion clubs

News Editor

There was a changing of the guard in Waseca Monday night.

In a ceremony at Waseca VFW Post 1642, three Iraq war veterans were among new officers sworn in.

Mike Felske, Jeremiah Miller and Ted Westling returned to Waseca less than a year ago after serving in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard.

As new veterans of a foreign war, they received a one-year paid membership to the local VFW Sweet Sommers Post. One of the first things they realized was that they would have to "step up" to help the post because the people doing the work were getting tired.

And step up, they did.

Felske, 31, received the gavel from outgoing post commander Jerry Hanson, 83.

Miller, 30, is the new quartermaster; and Westling, 39, became senior vice commander.

Other new officers are Bill Johnson, junior vice commander; Terry Ziemke, adjutant; and Rodney Southwick, service officer.

World War II vet, 84-year-old Max Hopkins, said these new vets will save the post.

While Post 1642 lists 491 members, 475 of them are life members who are scattered across the country.

Only about 20 members are active in monthly post affairs and volunteerism, according Johnson, a Vietnam War vet.

"We're holding our own," he said about the Waseca post.

But Johnson said six posts a year are "passing away" in Minnesota.

Losing posts

The Veterans News Bureau reported the February closing of the last VFW hall in St. Paul, where there were once 15; one hall remains in Minneapolis, where 13 once thrived.

World War II veterans, once the backbone of VFWs and American Legions, are dying at a rate of 1,500 a day, according to the bureau.

The names of 45 Waseca County veterans who died in the past year will be read during Monday's Memorial Day program in Waseca. Twenty-two of them served in World War II.

"Mike's our lifesaver; there was no one to take over. Now these young guys should give it a new life," Johnson said. "It's the new medicine that we need."

"No matter the war, there's a brotherhood once you've gone through basic training; you can never take that away," he said. Veterans understand other veterans, which is hard for non vets to understand, Johnson said.

But there is a membership gap because of the tens of thousands who served during the Cold War, who were not eligible for VFW membership and a generation of Vietnam vets like him who did not feel welcome at their posts and who were never welcomed home by the nation. He said that was also true for Korean War vets because it was an undeclared war.

As a Vietnam vet, Johnson stayed away until very recently.

"For 30 years, they wouldn't go in to a VFW hall; now, one by one they are starting to come back."

It is because of how the Vietnam vets felt when they returned, that they want to make sure returning American veterans are never treated like they were, he said.

Johnson remembers being spit on in San Francisco when he returned. He said many of the new vets raced to restrooms to shed their uniforms, but some had only their uniforms left to wear home.

Westling has a very different memory of returning to the U.S.

"We intentionally wore our uniforms because we got free drinks on the airplane," he said. "Guys walked up to me and handed me money for a meal."

The Iraqi vets were met by 30 people with gifts when they landed in Bangor, Maine.

At Applebee's in Owatonna, a stranger paid for Miller's dinner because he was in uniform.

It is because of people like Johnson, he said, that Iraqi vets are treated so well.


"We're proud to be a vet," Felske said. "We're going to do everything in our power to make it succeed," he said about the Sweet Sommers post.

The new officers have a plan to share the responsibilities of post commander so that Felske does not carry it alone.

They have plans to re-energize the post, starting with pancake breakfasts the second Saturday of every month to raise funds for its operation.

They want to keep the traditions going but make it new through more community involvement, youth groups, a men's auxiliary to open membership to more people, joint efforts with the American Legion, and more involvement of families and children.

While the hall will always be a place for veterans to find comradeship and to give service, they hope to make it a lively place for all veterans and their families.

"Just you wait," Miller said. "We have millions of new ideas; we have to make them happen."

Across town, officers were also sworn in at American Legion Post 228 on Monday night when Cliff Jes took over as post commander.

"Knock on wood, we're holding our own," said post adjutant Gary Bohm.

At the same time, he said, they have recycled their officers to different positions over the years and most of the members are now in their 50s and 60s.

"We hope we have some life left in us," Bohm said.

The Waseca post gained 13 new members and 12 transfer members in the past year, he said, bringing post membership to 420. But they usually lose about a dozen members a year through death, especially their WWII veterans.

Fenske, Miller and Westling have also joined the Legion and hope to get involved there too, Bohm said.

"We could also use a shot of fresh blood and new energy," he said.

Ruth Ann Hager is at 507- 837-5446 or