Legionnaires and members of complementary organizations from throughout Chautauqua County and surrounding counties came to Post 62 in Dunkirk Friday to welcome their state leaders.
Department of New York American Legion Commander William R. Kearsing, Department of New York Auxiliary President Karyn Porempski and Department of New York Sons of the American Legion Detachment Commander David L. Bishop, Sr. were the guests of honor for lunch at the post, with a larger dinner to be hosted at the Cassadaga Memorial Post 1280 Friday evening.
Porempski, a native of Cheektowaga, said she was happy to be back in Western New York.
OBSERVER Photo by Tim Latshaw
Department of New York American Legion Commander William R. Kearsing, left, speaks at a luncheon held Friday at American Legion Post 62 in Dunkirk. Seated beside him is Post 62 Commander John Miga.
"It's so wonderful to be home in the Eighth District," she said.
Kearsing kept his words at the luncheon short, with promise of much more to come in the evening.
"I'm going to make a short speech today because I'm going to let everybody think I do give short speeches," he said. "I'll get you to show up tonight and you're going to get a big one."
Kearsing did have more to say following the luncheon, however, as he and the other two officers sat down to talk about their tours of the state and their present missions toward aiding soldiers and their families. According to them, every county in the state is visited.
"We like to inspire the people in the counties; let them know what's going on at the Legion, what's going on at the Auxiliary; what's going on at the Sons of the Legion," Kearsing said. "We talk about what we do for veterans, what we need to do for veterans, what we need to do for kids, widows, spouses, community, state and nation. We do a lot."
Current projects and initiatives the organizations have under way include the Warriors Family Assistance Program, which provides grants of up to $1,500 to families of veterans needing assistance, and Heroes to Hometowns, which establishes a support network for severely injured servicemembers who are returning home.
The organizations also advocate on the behalf of veterans and soldiers to the government. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals are a particular focus as advances in field medicine means more critically injured soldiers survive.
"We have a lot of soldiers coming back who need prosthetics," Porempski said. "The injuries are so much more devastating; they never probably would've survived before."
"In the economic situation for the next 20 or so years, it's tough to get the money that's needed when you need it," Kearsing said. "The American Legion has been advocating mandatory funding of the VA for a very long time and, quite frankly, it's not going to happen. But we did do the next best thing. The VA now knows a year in advance what they're going to get for their next budget. That means they can shop smarter; get things cheaper. It's a step in the right direction."
The organizations have also been advocating for a more extensive and streamlined records system in the Department of Defense, reducing the needs for veterans to file extensive forms and provide witnesses to attest for their service. A bill has been presented in Congress to this effect.
"When a guy gets out of the service, he wants to get out," Kearsing said. "He's proud of his service, but he wants to get home to his wife, home to his mother, home to his kids and not play around. Sometimes they don't take care of the things they need to take care of while they're there, and the Department of Defense doesn't have the computer system, unilaterally, that can answer all the questions they would need to know about that veteran."
The Sons of the American Legion, which returned in New York in the '70s, has also been a presence not only in veterans affairs and rehabilitation, but supporting the families of veterans as well, actively giving to organizations such as the Children's Miracle Network.
"Basically, the primary directive is what our national commander said last year what 'Sons' stands for, and that's 'Serving Our Nation's Soldiers,'" Bishop said.
The goals of the organizations are many and extensive, and currently military operations abroad means that needs likely won't stop anytime soon.
"You never have the resources you want to do it 100 percent right," Kearsing said. "You never do. We need more volunteers; we need more people to be aware and that's one of the reasons we do this traveling: to let people know what's going on out there."
The way the three organizations support each other is an essential element to the continued success of their goals
"It's always been mentioned about the Legion family," said Bob Barrett, Chautauqua County Commander. "We all know in Chautauqua County about the stuff we do here and about the things that are done, but without the Auxiliary and Sons, all of us would be in big trouble."
Another essential element, according to the officials, is the work the individual posts put into not only supporting overall goals, but also the specific needs of their communities.
"You can get anybody and their mother to wear this white cap as department commander, but to get a post commander - somebody that really gets into it, understands the need and enjoys doing it - that's priceless," Kearsing said.
"We need to do more PR for ourselves, definitely," Porempski said. "It all starts in the post, the unit and the squadron."
Following the luncheon, the officers took a tour of the Dunkirk Lighthouse Veterans Park and Museum.
One of the Legion's programs, Operation Comfort Warriors, seeks to provide items such as DVD players, puzzles and comfortable clothing to hospitalized soldiers. The program is currently in the running to receive $250,000 in funding from Pepsi, based on public votes. For more information go online to www.refresheverything.com/operationcomfortwarriors.