Guest Post — May 15, 2013
Note from Dan: This came in Sunday night. The story is long, but very well told. If you care about veterans, you’ll care about this.
By John Moyer, VFW Life Member
Past Post Commander (Post 6949)
Past Post Quartermaster (6949, 7854)
Past Post Adjutant (6949, 7854)
The slogan, “NO ONE DOES MORE FOR VETERANS” appears on correspondence sent from the National Headquarters of The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States located in Kansas City, Mo. As a member, I never had reason to question the saying until recently, when a fellow veteran was cut loose.
On January 29, 2013, after nearly 40 years of service to the VFW, Connie Wood’s Life Membership was terminated. Despite a lengthy appeal process, which included a petition of support bearing hundreds of signatures, it was over. With the passage of time, I can almost understand why the higher ups went by the book and not the heart, but it hasn’t eased the bitterness I currently have for the organization, or the pain of seeing a really decent man put down. I keep thinking that perhaps if Connie had really been known, had been more than a name or number to the higher ups, things would have ended differently.
Connie, a self-proclaimed “country boy,” was born May 8, 1935 in his parents’ home located near Spencer in southwest Virginia. Being raised during the depths of the Great Depression, in rural America, meant hard work and tough times would be inescapable. Connie, who would become the standard bearer for his six brothers and three sisters that followed, would learn well how to face the cards dealt to him along the way, at least most of them.
In 1941, when Connie was ready to begin school, his family picked up and moved to land his father bought.
“It was 35 acres near my grandparents place up on the Blue Ridge. The walk to and from the Mountain View School in Meadows of Dan was a mile or so. It was a one-room, one-teacher school for grades 1-5. I carried my supper of cornbread milk in a one-gallon syrup bucket,” he said.
When not in school, Connie was home helping to care for his siblings and tackling many chores.
“We didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. Wood was used for cooking and heating and so I spent a lot of time using a crosscut saw and an axe. I had to get up early to milk our four cows and to haul the milk to a nearby spring branch to cool. I learned to work a plow behind a horse. We grew beans, cabbage and corn and there were always weeds to pull. I remember washing clothes on a washboard and hanging them up to dry.”
One thing Connie doesn’t remember is leisure. Despite the hardships, Connie felt grateful to have a place to stay and something to eat.
“Although some of our clothes were handmade by mother, I remember my father buying each of us boys 2 pair of overalls, 3 shirts and a pair of shoes at the beginning of the school year. Each sister would get a couple of dresses and a pair of shoes. To make our shoes last, we spent the summers barefoot.”
When Connie was about to enter the seventh grade his family moved once again.
“My father bought some land in nearby Floyd County. There was a lot of work to be done, especially trees to be pulled and brush to be cleared.”
The following spring, while helping his father take down an old fence, Connie was struck in the left eye by an errant piece of barbed wire.
“I was taken to nearby Roanoke and was kept in an eye clinic for a week where they treated me with medicine two times a day. It didn’t help and I lost the sight in that eye.”
With impaired vision, Connie found completing the seventh grade difficult.
“I was a slow learner to begin with and the studies were hard. The kids started treating me differently too.” Since chores also competed with time for studies, the decision was made not to return to school. “Daddy needed my help and so I never went back.”
Connie continued to work on the farm with his father until he was 18, then went off to work in a saw mill and later in a furniture factory.
While attending church one Sunday morning in 1956, Connie met 19-year old Sylvia Poff. They married the following year. During their first year of marriage Connie received a draft notice from Uncle Sam.
“I went to the induction center in Roanoke, but was rejected because of my eyesight. Not too long afterwards another notice arrived. This time I was told to bring a shaving kit.”
As unbelievable as it may seem, on 19 February 1958, Connie was accepted for induction.
“I understood that a quota had to be met. It came down to me and another guy who couldn’t control his nerves. A lieutenant said to me: ‘I had a one-eyed sergeant and he was the best man I ever had.’
“There was no time to say good-bye to Sylvia and I was soon on my way to Fort Knox.”
As you might imagine, basic training proved difficult. “For awhile, in the beginning, every time I told the platoon sergeant about my eye, he’d tell me to fall out and report to the dispensary.” This only lasted so long, and soon Connie was joining in with all the other recruits to learn the Army way, with one exception.
“Even though I was a country boy and could still shoot, I was ordered to stand by to answer the telephone for the sergeant instead of taking part on the rifle range.”
After basic training, Connie went home to be with Sylvia for a short two-week leave before reporting to Fort Sam Houston in Texas where he received eight weeks of training as a medic.
“I learned to give emergency medical treatment, take patients’ temperature, pulse and blood pressure, give shots and medicines and clean and dress wounds. From Texas I went to Fort Dix, N.J. and then was sent overseas to Germany. I was assigned to the 20th Station Hospital in Nuremberg.”
Connie put his training to use treating soldiers that had injured themselves in accidents, contracted various venereal diseases and other illnesses. On once occasion he helped an intoxicated Master Sergeant who came in with half of his face peeled away. The wound had become terribly infected. Although the sergeant said it was accidental, Connie believes it was the result of a severe beating by soldiers that disliked the man’s strict ways.
“Some of the other medics didn’t have any luck trying to help him, but I did. About a week after this incident, I was promoted from PFC to Corporal and believe to this day that the Master Sergeant was behind my promotion.”
In February of 1960, after 18 months of service in Germany, Connie returned to the U.S. and was discharged from active duty. “I hadn’t seen Sylvia since completing basic training, so it was quite a homecoming.”
At home Connie found work in Floyd County scarce. “There was only timber and cattle work to do, so I went back to Bassett Furniture. The drive to Stanleytown was 142 miles round trip. In those days, you could work all you wanted to, or could, so I worked 10-12 hours a day, Monday through Friday and another half a day on Saturday. There was no overtime pay or benefits either.” In March of 1967, Connie and Sylvia’s only child, Kenneth, was born.
In time, Connie would leave the furniture factory and find work on various projects in Roanoke as a member of a carpenters union. Later he found employment with the Hollandsworth & Vose Company in Floyd. Connie’s bond with the Veterans of Foreign Wars began in 1973.
“In addition to my regular job, I was a member of the all-volunteer Floyd County Fire Department. One day Carroll Lane, the fire chief, asked me if I was a veteran, and I said “yes.” He then asked if I had served overseas, and again I answered “yes.” He encouraged me to join the local VFW Post and gave me an application to complete.
“I had a good feeling about the VFW. In the early 50s I lost a cousin that was a veteran and the Post’s Honor Guard had provided military rites.” Connie filled out the application and gave it to Carroll along with a copy of his discharge. “Not long afterwards I was accepted for membership.”
Connie was surprised to be one of only 5 members in attendance during his first meeting. In addition to Carroll Lane, the Post Commander, there were three others, two of which made up the membership committee that had signed off on his membership. According to Connie, Post 7854, which had been granted a charter in 1946, had grown and prospered for many years, but then had been brought down by some gambling and drinking problems.
Many of the members had left the Post in Floyd and joined the Post in nearby Hillsville, currently one of the largest in the state.
For the next 40 years, believing with all his heart that he was a bona fide member of the VFW, Connie worked hard to help restore the Post. In addition to serving as Post Commander for 9 years, he became a member of the Post’s Honor Guard and took part in countless funerals for fallen comrades, Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, the yearly Massing of the Colors in Roanoke, as well as Floyd’s annual Christmas parade.
As one of four route leaders, he was responsible for seeing that Old Glory was properly displayed along Floyd’s main streets on eight separate holidays every year, and he personally saw to it that our nation’s flag was raised before the start of many home football games held at the local high school.
He took part in numerous “Buddy Poppy” campaigns to raise relief funds and assisted with the annual Voice of Democracy program. Every Christmas, he helped deliver fruit baskets to the widows of fallen comrades. Connie helped out on numerous construction and maintenance projects and shouldered the responsibility of seeing to it that the Post Home was clean and ready when used by renters, including the local American Legion Post, which he was instrumental in helping to find a place to meet.
“Being a member of the VFW and helping veterans was a big part of my life. Having part of my self, part of who I am taken away, has been hard.”
And why was Connie, after nearly 40 years of service to the VFW, terminated? A former member of the Post contacted the district commander where he raised the question of Connie’s eligibility.
Why, remains unknown, but the wheels were set in motion. As it turned out, although Connie had served in Germany during the Cold War, because he hadn’t served in West Berlin, a mere 271 miles from Nuremberg, for 30 or more consecutive days, he was not issued an Army of Occupation campaign medal.
A campaign medal, along with U.S. citizenship and honorable service in the Armed Forces are the three requisites for membership in the VFW. What is important to know is that Connie never tried to deceive anyone to gain membership in the VFW.
A review of his original application clearly shows that next to “Name of Campaign Ribbon or Medal” he wrote, in capital letters, “NONE.”
Was it carelessness on the part of the membership committee and Post Commander, all of whom are now deceased, or something more that permitted Connie admission to the club? After all, Posts are under great pressure year in and year out to increase their numbers. In Connie’s case, we’ll never know.
One thing is certain though. The higher-ups, specifically Commander-in-Chief John Hamilton, Adjutant General Allen “Gunner” Kent, Judge Advocate General/Chairman, Committee on Appeals David Norris, Virginia State Commander Margo Sheridan, Virginia State Adjutant Kim DeShano and Virginia 5th District Commander David Kipfinger should be ashamed.
Their heads should be down and their tails tucked between their legs. Not one word of acknowledgement. Not one “I’m sorry the way things turned out.” Not one “thank you” for all of the hours you gave, the miles you drove and the money you have spent, helping veterans in the name of VFW, has been uttered from the “leadership.”
How cold! The silence has been deafening and a man who recently marked his 78th birthday deserved a hell of a lot better! NO ONE DID MORE FOR VETERANS than Connie Wood.
Because Connie was terminated, Sylvia, a Charter Member of Post 7854’s Ladies Auxiliary, was also terminated. Wheelchair-bound due to the effects of a stroke, Sylvia eagerly looked forward to the monthly meetings and activities that allowed her an opportunity to get out and do something for the veterans in the community.
I am also waiting for an apology. Last October, at the end of the monthly meeting, our Post Commander resigned. The following month the 5th District Commander arrived on the scene to sit in as Post Commander. Towards the end of that meeting he mentioned that Connie’s membership has been challenged by a member of the Post.
When I asked who had raised the challenge, he declined to state and when I pressed harder for an answer, he starting telling me I was “out of order” and that the matter would be discussed later. Well, I said some pretty nasty things to the District Commander, and walked out the door.
After I departed, he told the remaining members that it was the former Post Commander who had driven down to Martinsville to raise the question of Connie’s eligibility. In late November Connie and I both received letters from National stating that our eligibility for membership had been challenged. We were instructed to furnish Headquarters with a “certified copy,” from the National Personnel Records Center, of our separation documents evidencing our entitlement to a recognized campaign service medal with a discharge under honorable conditions from our period of service.
We were given 60 days to comply. What I discovered is that the 60-day deadline is almost impossible to meet. The National Personnel Records Center is St. Louis is swamped with requests for medical records, personnel records, campaign medals, etc.
Needless to say, Connie and I both received letters stating that since we hadn’t complied (met the 60-day deadline) our memberships in the VFW were terminated. We were even directed to return our Life Membership cards to National.
In my case, I picked up the phone and eventually was put in contact with the Deputy Director, Administrative Operations. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t just sent a copy of my DD-214 to National for their perusal. I said the letter that I had received stated that it must be a “certified copy” from the NPRC. He also asked why I hadn’t asked for an extension.
I said that I assumed the people at the NPRC had plenty of time to fulfill my request. To make an already long story short, he allowed me to forward to him an email copy of my DD-214. Not long afterwards I have received a letter rescinding the order to terminate my membership and another that included a new Life Membership card. No apologies were included.
Every month, VFW Virginia issues general orders. In researching the past five years I discovered that 62 members (including Connie) had their memberships terminated. Of this number, 2 were reinstated. Additionally, 13 Posts have had their charters cancelled and been declared defunct.