In 2005, a National Guard soldier was serving near Baghdad when a powerful bomb detonated beneath his Humvee.
The blast nearly killed the guardsman, John Chalker of Port Washington, and crushed his left foot. But his resolve remained intact.
A year later, he took over as commander of Port Washington VFW Post 1819 — which itself was limping toward insolvency and hemorrhaging membership.
Over the next 11 years, according to VFW members, Chalker restored the post to health, overseeing major improvements to the building, recruiting the post’s first black, Asian and female members, and helping the organization transition from aging World War II members to one stocked with a younger, more diverse membership.
With the post on a more solid footing, Chalker is retiring as post commander, now that a series of surgeries for cancer thought to be related to his National Guard service at Ground Zero have taken an increasing toll on the 64-year-old, who has also served as a police officer and in the Army during the Vietnam era. A permanent successor has not been named.
“I get a huge emotional reward for having saved this place,” Chalker said recently. “But after 11 years, I’m kind of burned out. It’s time to do other stuff.”
Members say Chalker carried a heavy load.
The post itself had begun to fall apart by the time Chalker took over. A rear portion of the building on Mohegan Avenue had collapsed in a snowstorm. The furnace at the post — a colonial-style structure built in 1930 by veterans of World War I — had begun to gulp fuel oil. And the electrical system was a relic of a bygone era.
“They were going to sell the place — dump it,” said William Cooke, 68, of Lake Grove. “He turned the place around.”
Last week, volunteers assembled by the nonprofit organization Rebuilding Together Long Island put the finishing touches on renovations that included new LED lighting, replacement windows and plasterboard walls. Volunteers associated with the New York Nets developmental league painted ceilings and hammered together a handicapped access ramp at the building’s rear.
Veterans’ service organizations are hoping that changes in how their posts are run can help them boost flagging membership by appealing to younger, black, Hispanic and Asian, and female veterans.
Last month, the American Legion elected Denise Rohan as its first female national commander. Her predecessor, Charles Schmidt, had expressed concern that dwindling numbers of members were hurting the Legion’s involvement in community programs, and its ability to provide drivers and other assistance to those using Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.
Chalker, who leaned on crutches Thursday while looking at the post’s most recent renovations, said he was determined to bring in younger members to assure its future.
He often recruits veterans he meets during his rounds as a patrolman with the Port Washington Police Department.
That’s how he met Casey Wall, 35, an Iraq War veteran and a member of the Sands Point police force.
“I wasn’t looking to join at the time, but he inspired me,” said Wall, who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, and joined the post about four years later. “I have a young family and it was far away from where I live in Mount Sinai. But you could see his passion in the post.”
Wall said because combat veterans often feel uncomfortable talking about military life with those who have never been in uniform, he appreciates having a place where fellow veterans can congregate.
“These guys are holding down the fort for guys like me who are getting through years where we are really busy with kids and family,” Wall said of Chalker and the post’s older members. “You can’t feel any more welcome than walking into the VFW.”