The VFW at 50: Sag Harbor Veterans Celebrate a Milestone

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By Stephen J. Kotz

Fifty years ago, with the Vietnam War moving into full swing, 74 veterans gathered in Sag Harbor to found the Veterans of Foreign War Post 9082.

This Tuesday, May 12, many of those founders’ sons and daughters will gather at the Sag Harbor American Legion hall to celebrate a half century of service to the community and the kind of camaraderie only service members can understand.

“We just want to carry on the tradition of my father and the other guys who started the post,” said the post’s commander, Harry “Hap” Wills, an Army veteran who served in Germany from 1970 to 1973.

The event, which begins at 6 p.m., will include a cocktail party for members and their guests, presentations of proclamations from local elected officials, a speech by post historian Dan Sabloski, who is a Vietnam veteran, and the presence of at least one charter member, Joe Ricker.

This week six members of the post gathered to talk about the organization and its role in the community.

Sag Harbor already had a thriving American Legion, the Chelberg & Battle Post 388, when the local VFW was founded. In some cases, the veterans who founded the VFW were not eligible for membership in the Legion because of its strict bylaws. And many of those who founded the VFW were from a younger generation, Korean War veterans, for instance, as compared to the Legion, whose members were largely drawn from among World War I and II veterans.

Nonetheless, the Legion has allowed the VFW to meet in its building and many local veterans are members of both organizations, according to Ronn Pirrelli, a former commander and Army veteran, who is one of those dual members.

“With all the people I’ve met throughout my life, there is always a special connection with anyone who served in the military,” Mr. Pirrelli said.

“We call each other comrades, which has nothing to do with the Soviets,” quipped another member, Navy veteran John Capello.

A hallmark of the VFW is the help it provides to other veterans, whether they are members of the post or not. “Our motto is ‘Honor the dead by caring for the living,’” said Sharon Lewis, a retired Navy corpsman and the post’s quartermaster.

VFW members say the post plays an active member in the community, from lending a hand to a fellow vet who is experiencing hard times, to sponsoring and coaching Little League teams and sponsoring essay and speech contests for local students. Members place flags on the graves of veterans in local cemeteries every Memorial Day and are available to serve as honor guards at fellow veterans’ funerals.

“We have a lot of active duty military members coming out of Sag Harbor now, said Ms. Lewis, noting that the VFW tries to send them regular care packages.

John Burns, who was stationed on a Navy tug at an American sub base in Scotland during the late 1960s, said among the care packages he used to receive was a weekly copy of The Sag Harbor Express, which the paper’s then publisher, Vicky Gardiner, sent to all village servicemen and women. “Guys would look at that tiny paper and ask, ‘What size town do you come from?’” he laughed, adding that his weekly paper was a welcome “tie to home.”

Joe Page, another past commander, served on Army combat duty during the height of the Vietnam War, being shuttled by helicopter to weeks-long patrols in the bush. “I was afraid to go on a Ferris wheel,” he said of his fear of heights as a young man. “A year later, I was sitting with my legs hanging out of the open door of a helicopter.”

Years after the war, he was among the local veterans who noticed there was no monument commemorating those who served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Together, they secured the donation of a large stone that was placed at Marine Park in 1981 to honor those veterans.

Although it is commonly believed that VFW membership is only open to those who served in declared wars, that is not the case. Generally, its membership is open to those who served during periods of hostility, like the Cold War, for instance.

That was the case with Mr. Capello, who served on a Navy minesweeper in Beirut, in 1958. Tensions were mounting between the Soviets, who through their Syrian proxies, were angling to gain control of a warm water port, and the U.S. Although it was not a hot war, Mr. Capello’s minesweeper, the Navy’s smallest ship and a wooden one at that, came under nightly fire.

Vincent Starace served on a troop ship in the Pacific during the late stages of World War II. Although his unit did not see combat, he said he remember vividly sailors being stacked in tight bunks six high. His bunk was just below the deck. “The heat from that deck was just unbelievable,” he said.

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