TOM MAZZA came home from Vietnam in 1969 with his best friend's body in a bag.
Mazza was only 21 and too young to know that kind of pain, he said, and it
changed him forever.
"We were at Hamburger Hill together in May 18, 1969," said the 52-year-old
Vietnam veteran, referring to the notoriously bloody battle that left him
injured by shrapnel and his friend, Rudy Rossi, dead. "We grew up together, we
joined the service together. We built cars together in Ridgewood and Glendale."
Mazza was the lucky one-he was still alive, although once back in Queens he
said he "had no job and nowhere to go," and plenty of psychological problems.
He found refuge at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Sgt. Edward R. Miller Post No.
7336 in Glendale, a place where he said he could go for understanding.
"There's people here I can talk to," Mazza said there recently, surrounded by
his buddies who know what it's like "to be in a jungle for 33 days at a clip"
or to watch another soldier die.
Mazza, a retired city police officer and a Glendale resident, is one of 2
million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States-a national
organization of vets that celebrated its 100th anniversary last month. But as
Veterans Day approaches on Thursday, many members believe the very existence of
the VFW is in jeopardy.
"There won't be a VFW," said Bob Romer, chaplain of VFW Post No. 536 in
Flushing. "Unless we have a World War III, there won't be a VFW. It's better
to lose the VFW than to have another war."
Of the half-million veterans in the city, 135,000 live in Queens, more than any
other borough, said Michael Handy, director of the mayor's Office for Veteran
Romer served in Korea and has been a member of the Flushing post for five
years. "The VFW has another 30 years before it goes out," he said, figuring
that most of the Vietnam vets, who are in their 50s, will live to their 80s.
"Unless there's another war or regulations [eligibility requirements]
drastically change, that's going to be the end of it."
The VFW advocates on behalf of those who have fought and served in war zones
overseas, representing the interests of the veterans on the local, state and
federal level. It is a nonprofit association that does not receive funding from
the government, yet provides programs and services that perpetuate the memory
of fallen soldiers, fosters patriotism, defends the Constitution, and promotes
social services in the communities where vets and their families live and work,
said Vern Pall, a spokesman at the VFW's national headquarters in Kansas City,
As for future wars, some vets believe that military conflicts are inevitable,
ensuring a continuing urgency for the VFW.
"I hope there's no wars and I hope there's no need for VFW 100 years from now,
but I doubt it very much," said 73-year-old John Fink, Mazza's buddy and
commander of the Glendale post.
Fink served in the Navy during World War II and says the role of the VFW will
mostly be about fighting Congress about cuts in veterans benefits.
Because of such cuts, vets in Queens who need hospital care have to go to a
Veterans Affairs hospital in Brooklyn or Manhattan, he said.
Fred Schwally, the Queens County Council VFW commander for the 26 posts
throughout the borough, said, "Unfortunately, I think [the VFW is] still going
to be around.
"It's predicated on war and it seems like every day we're getting involved in
another military conflict. I can't see it being any different in 100 years from
now. Over the next 100 years the goal is to end up with no members and no
Schwally, who served in the infantry in Vietnam, believes the VFW post serves a
necessary function by providing the vet with "a place to re-adjust, a place to
vent anger, to speak out about how upset you are.
"Most of us come back and have nightmares about war," he said. "Only another
vet can understand. People who haven't experienced it really don't understand.
The sound of a bullet coming out of a rifle in World War II is the same as the
sound of a bullet in Desert Storm. It's the sound of a bullet coming at you."
But finding a port in the storm is seemingly not an issue for the younger vets,
who may be too busy and distracted with their families and their careers or
just not interested in joining a veterans organization. There are not many left
to pass the torch and few there to grab it.
In the absence of a large pool of vets to replace the older World War II vets
who are dying off, the battle of declining membership may be the VFW's toughest
"It's a very sad thing," said Jack Fein, a World War II veteran who was awarded
the Purple Heart.
Fein, 84, is a former VFW member and now a historian at Fort Totten in
Bayside. "As the years go by, we're gradually fading out of the picture,
especially those who served in World War II. Unless there are wars, they'll
fade out. It's the soldiers that kept this country together."
Pall, the VFW national spokesman, said, "It's decreasing, there's no doubt
Today there are 9,700 VFW posts worldwide with 1,967,712 members, down from an
all-time high of 2,167,727 in 1992, said Pall.
He attributes the decline to the increased death rate among the World War II
generation. World War II veterans are passing away at the rate of 1,100 a day,
and perhaps 1,500 a day if you count the Korean and Vietnam veterans, he said.
The VFW hopes to gain new membership from the population of Korean, Vietnam,
Somalia and Desert Storm servicemen and women who have yet to join. The VFW
also is considering expanding the eligibility requirements to let more vets in
who were not permitted to join before, such as those in support units
stationed outside of combat zones, Pall said.
"We have to continue to make sure the vets that are coming back from wartime or
peacetime get whatever they need-medical care, education, home loans-100
percent of their entitlements and we have to make sure Congress will always
fund the programs," Pall said.
Although some believe that nowadays the posts are nothing more than local
watering holes for the "good old boys" to socialize, the vets say nothing can
be further from the truth.
The VFW lives by the motto to "Honor the Dead by Helping the Living" and the
local VFW posts act as a central spring from which many community-based
services are provided, the vets say.
"We're comrades," said Hector DeFendini, commander of the College Point VFW
Post 885. "We fought. We know what war is like. But we just don't come here to
drink. We serve the community-marching in the parades, sponsoring the Little
League teams-so they don't forget who we are and what we did."
In Laurelton, T.J. Tharpe, a Vietnam veteran and commander of VFW Post 5298,
says the mission now will be to bring more information to the public, making
them aware of veterans issues, benefits and entitlements. "We will be doing
more community work and working with more veterans over the next 100 years than
the last 100 years."
Charlie Dunn, a veteran of the Korean War and the chaplain at the Glendale VFW,
said, "Though we are no longer on active duty, we are still serving the
community. We were proud to serve our country in its time of need and we are
just as proud in serving our community."