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Ed Banas, the national commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, passes out free phone cards Friday at the South of the Alps dining facility at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy.
Ed Banas, the national commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, passes out free phone cards Friday at the South of the Alps dining facility at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. (Kent Harris / S&S)

VICENZA, Italy — Elderly men dressed in somber hues at Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies.

That’s the picture many have of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Ed Banas, the national commander in chief of the organization, acknowledges that might be the perception. But he says the 104-year-old organization is a lot more than that.

It also serves current military members by lobbying for changes in Congress and by contributing large chunks of money to scholarship funds and care packages for deployed troops.

“The VFW is an organization that is always in transition,” Banas said Friday at the end of a swing through Italy. “Just like the military.”

According to Robert Wallace, the VFW’s executive director, the organization spent about 75 percent of its efforts on issues important to retired veterans as recently as five years ago. The rest was devoted to active-duty members.

“Today, it’s about 50-50,” said Wallace, who made the trip along with Banas. “Our legislative staff is always looking out for the welfare of the troops.”

The VFW currently boasts about 2.6 million members spread out among more than 9,000 chapters around the world. Thanks to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of active-duty and Reserve servicemembers eligible to join has jumped dramatically.

Servicemembers don’t have to be engaged in actual combat to qualify for membership. They just have to be deployed in an area of conflict on foreign soil.

Banas, who served in Vietnam during a brief stint in the Army, said he didn’t pay a lot of attention to the organization himself as a young soldier. It was only after he became a policeman and gained a greater sense of contributing to a community that he started to actively participate in the VFW.

He said many young servicemembers might be in similar situations. But every member who joins the organization makes it stronger, even if they don’t actively participate. That’s because Congress pays attention to numbers, and the larger an organization is, the more clout it often carries.

Wallace says VFW lobbyists have used some of their clout recently to score gains in granting health benefits for veterans, possibly opening the way for them to receive both disability and retirement pay.

He said the organization is actively pursuing an expanded GI Bill that would pave the way for all servicemembers to get a fully paid education at the school of their choice, as long as they meet the admission requirements.

And more efforts are now being directed at members and families of the National Guard and Reserve, who are playing a greater role in today’s military.

Migrated
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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