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From left, Veterans of Foreign Wars Senior Vice Commander-in-Chief John Furgess, VFW Director Edward “Leo” Andrew and Army Staff Sgt. David Lymburner review a map of a patrol route. Furgess and Andrew visited U.S. troops in the Balkans on Monday and Tuesday to give their support and to recruit new VFW members.
From left, Veterans of Foreign Wars Senior Vice Commander-in-Chief John Furgess, VFW Director Edward “Leo” Andrew and Army Staff Sgt. David Lymburner review a map of a patrol route. Furgess and Andrew visited U.S. troops in the Balkans on Monday and Tuesday to give their support and to recruit new VFW members. (David Josar / S&S)

EAGLE BASE, Bosnia and Herzegovina — When John Furgess returned from Vietnam 30 years ago, no one waved flags when he got off the bus in his hometown of Nashville.

This week, the 60-year-old retired Tennessee National Guard colonel told U.S. troops deployed to the Balkans that Americans now zealously celebrate troops returning from overseas.

“We are remembering you. We are embracing you,” Furgess, the senior vice commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said during a tour of U.S. military operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. “It’s a new day for service.”

Furgess visited troops to support them on Veterans Day and to recruit new VFW members, something the organization needs now that the average age of its 2 million members is 65 years old.

Last week Furgess and Edward “Leo” Andrew, VFW director and another Vietnam War veteran, visited NATO headquarters in Brussels and the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart. Later this week they will visit U.S. Naval Command Europe in London.

At Veterans Day services at Eagle Base and at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, Furgess reminded the deployed troops, mostly National Guard members, that they should never forget where they were this Nov. 11.

“When you go home, you will never feel the way you feel today. This experience has shaped you, and it will shape your friends and family forever,” he said.

“They’re planning your homecoming today. Accept it. Embrace it. You deserve it.”

Support for Veterans Day isn’t as strong as it had once been, Furgess said, but troops shouldn’t be discouraged.

“You have to go out and go in the parade to remind people what you have done,” he said.

As part of their drive to get new members, Furgess and Andrew distributed hundreds of prepaid telephone calling cards to troops.

Enclosed with the cards were VFW membership applications that offer the troops a one-year free membership.

“To be honest, we really missed out after the first Persian Gulf War,” Furgess said, adding the VFW doesn’t want it to happen again.

The VFW has more stringent requirements than other veterans groups, most notably the American Legion, and specifies that a member had to serve overseas in a combat situation.

“We may be a little more selective, but that also makes us a little closer,” Furgess said.

The VFW also runs a political action committee and is active in lobbying Congress for benefits and funding that might otherwise be forgotten, the veterans said.

“There are fewer and fewer [elected officials] who have been in the armed services,” Andrew said. “We make sure veterans aren’t forgotten.”

During the whirlwind Balkans tour, the VFW representatives met with commanding generals, toured bases and went on patrols. Everywhere they went, the duo talked to troops about their deployments.

To illustrated how the VFW boosted his personal morale when a young man, Furgess repeats a story about a fruitcake.

Furgess was a first lieutenant with his squad on Christmas Eve 1967 in Vietnam. He had received a parcel in the mail. The return address was “VFW.”

Inside was a fruitcake that had been sent by the VFW chapter of Furgess’ hometown, Nashville. Furgess pulled out his bayonet and sliced the cake for his fellow soldiers and himself.

“We ate that cake pretty well,” he said. “Now I want to make sure that type of support continues for today’s troops.”

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