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Taps for the VFW?

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

Affairs.

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,

Mo.

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

wars."

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

war yet.

"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

about it."

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."

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