WACO, Texas — "Honoring the dead by helping the living" it's a mission which perhaps began on this day, September 29, more than 120 years ago, with the founding of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
Today marks the VFW's 122nd birthday, a day celebrated at VFW Posts and communities across the country, at a time when the VFW now represents the largest non-profit organization of combat veterans, devoted to helping other veterans and improving the communities they live in.
In the Lonestar state, with more than 70,000 members and 300 Posts, Texas VFW has continued to support veterans for their service and give back to the community. According to TexasVFW.org, VFW and its Auxiliaries donate more than 13 million volunteer hours of community service every year through programs such as youth mentoring groups, community food kitchens, and volunteering.
In Waco, the four VFW Post 2148 are the same as those on the Post's charter, dated 1932, on display in the building. The location of Post 2148 has changed since then, says 2148 Post Commander Alton Leuschner, but the veterans' devotion there towards helping each other and bettering our Central Texas community is perhaps no better on display than today.
"Everyone here is community-oriented," Leuschner said. "We don't have a cash register, we don't have a bar or allowing smoking. We're all really focused on community service."
In the past six months, improvements to the parking lot have been made, and a slab concrete adjacent to the building shows where construction is underway to add to the building. Leuschner has been commander of Post 2148 for 11 years now, a job he said is only possible because of the tireless work of the veterans inside.
"I wouldn't want to be the commander without them," he said. "They carry the load, and took it all off of me so I just have to lead the meetings."
The load is heavy, one Luschner said, from coordinating volunteer programs to preparing meals for other Veterans. But, thanks to the members Luschner describes, tens of thousands of community service hours have gone right back into where we live.
John Johnson and Jose Morales are Vietnam Veterans, members of Post 2148.
"Here we volunteer four out five days of week, on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday," Johnson said. "Doing things like our coffee bar and popcorn bar for other veterans."
Like many of the other Vietnam Veterans, you'll meet at Post 2148, Johnson and Morales both experienced combat, fighting in the Vietnam War.
"Well, it was hell. I was scout dog running point all the time, and jumping out of those darn helicopters," Johnson said. "It would keep your feet wet being in a lot of the jungle and rice patties down south. I worked with the 82nd Airborne, who had a 100-mile radius around Saigon, so we went everywhere."
"I was a door gunner and infantry," Morales said. "Two years in the air and two years in the infantry. I did my full tours there."
Morales said the atmosphere at Post 2148 is something different.
"I don't like to talk much about my experiences around anybody, and I got tired of the drinking and war stories, and I like it here."
And the camaraderie and friendship Morales and Johnson have are on display, laughing in conversation, as they stand in the middle of the building conversing with their fellow members.
Gary Urban and John Knue are Air Force Vietnam Veterans at Post 2148. Knue said he became associated with Post 2148 through volunteering at the Veterans One Stop in Waco, where he's still active.
"Being here is just another way of being with veterans, but also another way to extend my community service," Knue said. "I put in a lot of hours at the Waco Clinic in McLennan County every month."
Urban, who also volunteers at the Waco Veterans One Stop, has been a member of the VFW for 51 years. An experience he said that started when he came back from Vietnam in 1970.
"I got back from Vietnam on my first tour and my dad was a quartermaster for a VFW in Kansas," Urban said. "This post has been unbelieve with their charity events and the donations they make to places like the Waco Veterans One Stop."
Both Urban and Knue expressed how the focus on community service isn't the only thing that makes Post 2148 unique; it's also the food.
"It's really good," Knue said.
Spearheading that effort is Teresa Rockensock.
"Every Wednesday, I come here and I do all the shopping for our breakfast. Last week we had breakfast burritos, and build your own omelets with ham and cheese," said Rockensock.
She smiles as she points out the different items in the Post 2148 kitchen.
"Sometimes we have pastries, fresh fruit, biscuits and gravy," she explained. "We'll have bacon or turkey sausage for people who don't like pork. I love it."
Donald Littlefield is a Vietnam Veteran and a lifetime member of VFW Post 2148. He said he was shot in the stomach in Vietnam, an injury he lives with today.
"I was hit in 1969," Littlefield said.
His story, one of selfless service, despite his injury and nearly giving his life, he's still working to serve his community and other veterans. Today he's the state VFW-VAVS. He said that puts him in charge of recording volunteer hours at seven other VFW posts within a district includes Hill County, Bosque County, Limestone County, and Freestone County.
"This Post right here has accumulated 75,000 hours," Littlefield said.
Rockensock said so far; she's done 2,000 of those hours. Her husband, Neil Mala, is the foundation of what keeps Post 2148 so productive. Her husband, Neil Mala, currently serves as the Post Adjutant. The story of how Teresa and Neil met stretches across the globe, overlapping with their service during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
"It's actually a funny story," Mala said. "We were stationed together in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. She was a cook and I was a medic and friendship struck up between us. After the war, we kind of met up again and we found out we had some things in common. 32 years later, and we have three kids and grandkids."
Teresa and Neil are open about their experiences with PTSD after coming back from the war. Mala explained it was difficult trusting people who had not experienced what he had during the war.
"I have an issue trusting people," "And so to bring me out of that post-traumatic stress sort of comfort zone, which was stuck at home, this enabled me to get back into the public to be able to serve the community and find that family that I was missing, which is the family that I had in the military.,"
"I was in a deep depression," Teresa said. "I felt worthless because I hurt my back in Iraq and I've had surgeries. I just started volunteering and helping, and now I feel needed and wanted."
Both credit their time at Post 2148 with helping them persevere and encourage other war veterans who may be experiencing a similar challenge with PTSD to consider coming to a place like Post 2148 where they can be with like-minded individuals.
"As a female, I can say all of these guys are gentlemen," Teresa said. "They're amazing people and we're a big happy family. If you're suffering at home, just know there is a place you can come right here."
Every Veteran at Post 2148 has a remarkable story where their selflessness in helping their community and fellow veterans you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As for the future of Post 2148? Commander Luschner explained they'll do what they always, enjoy breakfast together at 8 am sharp.
For more information on joining a VFW Post, visit this link or find a post nearby by clicking here. If you're a U.S. Veteran in the Waco area that's served in combat operations overseas and would like to join VFW Post 2148, you can contact Post Commander Leuschner at firstname.lastname@example.org.