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Without fair, vets miss vital connection

Editor's Corner

Allen Crick of the Falconer American Legion, left, Rebecca Martel of the Brocton Legion and Jack Hood of the Dunkirk American Legion are pictured in this 2017 file photo.

Paul Oyer understands the disappointment surrounding the cancellation of this year’s Chautauqua County Fair. The Frewsburg resident was one of the many who were hoping to be in attendance at the event normally held during the later weeks of July in Dunkirk.

Oyer, however, is not one who participates in the Floral Hall exhibits or the 4-H activities. Instead, he is one of the volunteers who has manned a tent dedicated to helping our area U.S. veterans as a member and past commander of the Chautauqua County Joint Veterans Council.

Over a number of years, this group of dedicated individuals from across the region could be found near the ground’s western parking lot off Waldoff Road. In some ways, that booth has become a life preserver for so many who have proudly served our country but deal with the stresses and disorders that remain once the combat has ended.

“A lot of veterans don’t want to go to any facility to get assistance or help or don’t want to look into it,” he said. “They’re generally (at the fair) with their family or their spouse. … They run into a vet and vets like to talk to vets. … They’ll walk up and start talking and we guide them to get them help they did not know was available.”

That tent, organizers say, was amazing in its outreach. But it will have to wait another year.

In early May, members of the fair board of directors made the decision to not hold the week-long event this year due to the uncertainties that came with COVID-19 and unclear state orders. Dave Wilson, fair board president, also expressed disappointment.

“The reason being is there is just not enough time to put everything together,” he said in an interview with the OBSERVER and The Post-Journal. “A lot of times we go out for major sponsors in January and February. All those sponsorship dollars that we bring in have already been allocated.”

Over the past 16 months, the virus has whittled opportunities for making connections and communicating by many organizations and non-profit agencies. It has impacted those with mental health issues as well as those with addictions.

Proud Americans who have fought for our country also have been left behind due to the fault of no one. Sometimes, these individuals do not share with others their depression or plight.

Without the fair this year, however, concern grows for those veterans across the county who are not reaching out. “We couldn’t really do anything with the pandemic this year,” Oyer said. “That’s why we were hoping the fair would go again and we could get some guys turned in the right direction who need it.”

As a U.S. Marine who served in Panama and Grenada during the early 1980s, Oyer knows the importance of the personal touch and strong bonds shared by those who have served. He also understands the setting matters when getting others to open up while seeking help.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of those who served with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder varies by the era. Those involved in the Gulf War or in the conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan range between 10% and 20%. Vietnam veterans are currently diagnosed at 15% with estimates that 30% during their lifetime have endured the disorder.

“A lot of veterans don’t want to reach out just because they’re introverts in a sense,” Oyer said. “Until they see other veterans in a relaxed atmosphere, they don’t feel pressure. They can come up and talk to us. They’re not in a confined area. They’re not in an office.”

Besides the discussion, the council offered tools and options in the form of more than 40 area contacts to veterans that may not be available through the highly respected Veterans Administration system. That being said, without the tent and fair, it is a missed opportunity for both the council’s volunteers and those who find hope.

Oyer is quick to point out area veterans, or their families, seeking help can turn to local American Legions as well as the Veterans Services of Chautauqua County, which is headed up by Gregory Carlson. But there is something to be said for just having a special presence at a highly attended event.

“We helped one veteran in dire need the year I was commander up there,” he remembers. “That fair tent is very valuable.”

John D’Agostino is editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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