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Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Massachusetts

125 years of supporting combat veterans.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Massachusetts advocates for combat veterans and works to instill patriotism within the state through various community service initiatives. Big Y has supported this nonprofit organization through its Community Bag Program.

Tell us about the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Massachusetts.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is the country’s oldest continually serving veterans organization. We trace our roots back to the Spanish American War veterans who founded the organization in 1899. Our organization is 125 years old, and we’re still going strong. We have almost 20,000 members between us and our auxiliary- spouses, parents, siblings, and grandparents of VFW-qualifying veterans- in Massachusetts alone.

Our five tenets are fraternal, patriotic, educational, charitable, and historical. Through these tenets, our most important mission is to help veterans file claims with the Veterans Administration (VA) for various sicknesses and disabilities. Going up against the VA by yourself is like going to court without a lawyer; you’ll never be successful. We represent veterans who receive an initial denial. We’re with them every step of the way and don’t charge them a dime of their compensation.

Our five tenets are fraternal, patriotic, educational, charitable, and historical.

We also run most of the civic parades for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. We decorate the graves of veterans, both old and new. If we need to, we will even go all the way back to the American Revolution to ensure we can identify them. We are also the ones at the funeral details, which is one of our very sacred duties. With any of these events, if we’re not doing the organizing, we’re probably involved. These are the sorts of things our organization does, and we’re very proud to do them.

What services do you provide to the community?

We do an incredible amount of community service. For example, we recently completed our middle school and high school essay contests. Every year, we also recognize our teachers through the Teacher of the Year Award and our first responders through a First Responders Award. Recently, we also collected birthday cards for a 101-year-old veteran. We do funeral details. We also have a video game tournament coming up for the national hall. You name it, we do it. This is how we get involved with our community and work to instill the patriotic aspect of what we do. We truly enjoy doing it, and the community loves it, too.

The VFW is also a springboard for personal achievement. When veterans come home, their civilian careers may not have responsibilities of the same caliber that their jobs in the service had. So, there is this ball of talent and potential sitting there dormant. We work to tap into this potential and to help it come alive.

The VFW works to give veterans incredible opportunities. For example, we will soon go down to Washington, D.C. to listen to our Commander in Chief testify before Congress. We will have the opportunity to meet all of our members of Congress as we advocate and lobby for benefits. Improvements to veteran benefits, such as the recently passed PACT Act, don’t just happen. It comes with the Veterans of Foreign Wars working as an apparatus to move mountains.

When veterans come home, their civilian careers may not have responsibilities of the same caliber that their jobs in the service had… We work to tap into this potential and to help it come alive.

What sets the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Massachusetts apart from other nonprofits in your community?

We are 100% veterans or descendants of veterans. The VFW is specifically an organization for combat veterans, meaning our members have been deployed somewhere under hostile fire receiving hostile duty pay. This sets us apart because combat veterans know how to get stuff done. We’ve had to improvise. We’ve had to think outside the box. So, we’ll find a way to get it done.

Tell us a story that illustrates the good work of your organization.

In 2020, we had a major Covid-19 disaster at the Veterans Home in Holyoke. We lost 77 veterans in less than 90 days. These veterans, many of whom were in memory units, struggled to advocate for themselves, which made the home ground zero for the disaster. What the issue came down to was an aging facility led by people without the correct qualifications to be making decisions about the situation. This just multiplied the disaster even more.

We mobilized with former administrators at the home to form the Veterans Home Coalition. Of all the veteran service organizations involved in this, the VFW was the one that saw it through from start to finish. Since we were there from the beginning to the end, it resulted in a close bond, which is now leading to the construction of a new home.

This new home will be built under a new model so that each room has no more than two people, with most veterans having their own space completely. Currently, the home has around four to six veterans in a room, which isn’t what we would want for a long-term care facility. We also followed all this work with a bill that requires certain licensures and credentials for the leadership of homes. This is probably the most important thing I’ve undertaken during my time at the VFW.

What is your most outstanding achievement or contribution to the community?

We dedicated a memorial in Southlake, the town my post is in, back in 2018. It is called the Veterans Memorial Foyer and uplifted the memory of four veterans from the high school who had been killed in action. Two were killed in Vietnam, one in Beirut, and the last one was killed in Iraq.

The high school is regional, yet the monument was set to focus only on the municipality it was located in. These four veterans all went to school together, but the veteran killed in Iraq would not be represented in the monument since he was from one of the smaller regional towns. This town had renamed the gymnasium in their little elementary school after him, but the school had recently closed due to regionalization. As all the students shifted to Southwick, the memory of this veteran would no longer be memorialized in the same way.

Because of this we wanted to include him in the memorial at the high school in Southwick. We ended up with a huge brand-new foyer addition for the school. We had citations coming in from Congress and the Commander in Chief. Additionally, all the Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Fathers came up for the dedication of their son’s plaques.

Now, these names will never be forgotten. As soon as you walk into the building, they’re right there on the right-hand side. You can’t miss them. To be able to bring something like this together truly illustrates the power of the organization.

What do you want people to know about Veterans of Foreign Wars?

We want people to know that we’re still here and still relevant. We have a very bright, important future and need combat veterans from younger generations to join.

We are getting a little bit older now. We’re about 20 years removed from when we left Iraq, so veterans my age are now becoming more established in their careers and settling down as their kids grow older. So, we’re hoping that as their time frees up, they will give our organization some of that discretionary time and income. As our World War II veterans and our Vietnam veterans, due to everything they were exposed to, are sunsetting, we need veterans to step up to fill their place.

We have a very bright, important future and need combat veterans from younger generations to join.

How will you use the funds you’ve received from the Big Y Community Bag Program?

The VFW will collect these funds and write a big check to Medic Now to hopefully meet or exceed the goal of our State Commander’s Special Project. The Medic Now Foundation’s mission is to help veterans and their dependents pay for uninsured medical expenses. This is important because VA benefits do not include copays and out-of-pocket costs. Depending on what the medications and services are, veterans and their dependents may not receive the support they need for serious medical conditions. This organization helps to support families through these difficult situations.

This aid generally comes as a $600 gift card directly to the veteran. Medic Now provides these funds about two weeks after veterans apply, using vetting agencies like the VFW to determine if applicants are eligible. We can certify that they are a veteran and need financial assistance so that Medic Now can send it to them within two weeks. Once they have the gift card, they can put it towards anything medical, including costs like prescriptions and braces. This work is actually two organizations running parallel to each other; it’s the VFW supporting and lifting up this particular organization’s work.

We approached Big Y for assistance with this effort, and Big Y answered in a big way. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without Big Y. We can’t say thank you enough for it.

Interview with Troy Henke, State Jr. Vice-Commander & Special Project Chairman 

Published February 15, 2024.