TAMPA, Fla. — He served his country in World War II, enlisting in the Army at age 17 and fighting battles in France, Germany and Belgium.
But that wasn’t enough for Boris Stern.
These days, he walks the halls of James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, still serving. The former infantry squad leader has a new role; he’s affectionately called “The Cookie Man” or the “Ice Cream Guy” as he maneuvers a cart filled with treats into the rooms of disabled and hospitalized veterans.
“Keeps me active physically and mentally. At my age, that’s important,” says Stern, 88. “And I just like helping out. These folks have done so much for us.”
Stern is with the Jewish War Veterans Post 373, a Hillsborough County-based group whose members served in conflicts in Europe, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. With each passing year, the once-robust group — which is part of a national organization founded in 1896 — shrinks a little more.
Now they have just 43 members. The youngest two are 72.
“We need some new blood, that’s for sure,” says Jim Marenus, who served in the Army and National Guard in the Vietnam era. “New blood means new ideas. And we’ve got to have people carry on the work we do.”
They meet monthly to strategize and socialize. April’s meeting was moved up a week due to Passover.
At 9:30 a.m. Sunday, the group will host a gathering with bagels and lox in the new annex of the VA hospital, 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa.
With their dwindling numbers, they’ve put a priority on recruiting new members.
“The best part, you don’t even have to be Jewish to join,” Marenus says. “You just can’t vote.”
For a small organization, they accomplish a lot, volunteering for programs and paying for outreach services the VA doesn’t have the budget to provide.
Among them: the snack cart for the veterans, Sudoku and word search books and free snacks for families in the VA café.
With a specially equipped van and driver from the hospital, members accompany patients on field trips to local destinations, such as MOSI, the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the Tampa Bay History Center, hockey and baseball games, and vintage car events.
Twice a year — on Veterans Day and Memorial Day — they raise money for their projects by selling paper poppies and small flags. The rest of the time they dig into their own pockets to buy the tickets and provide boxed lunches for field trips.
Though this band of brothers is Jewish, they reach out to all veterans, regardless of religious affiliation.
Members say they are very aware of the escalating rate of suicide among veterans, particularly those from wars in the Middle East, and of the number of homeless veterans living on the streets.
Every time they hear of cutbacks in spending for veterans by the federal government, or tragedies like the two Fort Hood shootings, they question if Americans value those who signed up or were drafted to serve and protect the country.
They believe it starts with veterans looking out for each other.
“I think it’s the right thing to do to support our fellow comrades, especially those who come back with emotional and physical scars,” says Harv Berman, who was a military policeman with the Army at Fort Campbell, Ky., during the Vietnam years.
“I’m disturbed by what’s happening with veterans, but not surprised. We are just not doing enough for them.”
For Stern, the best part of volunteering for the post is the hands-on approach to their outreach efforts.
“We’re not just handing over a check to paint a building. This is something a lot more personal,” he says.
As Stern distributes fresh-baked cookies and ice cream to patients, he takes the time to hear their stories and make them feel special. And if they ask, he’ll share a few war remembrances of his own.
“They don’t want pity,” he says. “They just want a little attention and someone to care. Isn’t that the least we should be doing?”