Veteran’s Day and the much anticipated Dan’s Best of the Best Celebration Party and Concert both fall on Friday, November 11 this year, and to honor this fact Dan’s Papers is donating a portion of proceeds from the big event at Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater to Riverhead’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Van Rensselaer Skidmore Post No 2476.
That post’s newly elected Commander—and, at 49, the youngest ever—Thomas Najdzian took some time to explain the role of the VFW, and what his particular post does to help local veterans and the community. A maintenance supervisor for the Long Island Rail Road in his civilian life, Najdzian’s military career spanned 23 years before his retirement in 2009. He was on active duty in the US Army for four years in the 1980s and went on to serve in the National Guard, eventually deploying to Iraq in 2005. There, he was in a Direct Support Unit doing maintenance and roadside service for convoys between Kuwait and Baghdad. His unit also helped in the efforts to rebuild and equip the new Iraqi army. This service overseas allowed him membership in the VFW.
“You had to have served overseas somewhere in a conflict,” he says, but adds that they’ve opened up the requirements to include anyone who served in a support role of a conflict overseas, even if their location was on, for example, an island outside the actual combat zone. Spouses and family members of VFW members can join the Auxiliary, which works with the membership. “They do pancake drives and all kinds of stuff, food drives. Christmas is coming, Thanksgiving is coming—they do all that stuff,” Najdzian says. “They hold their meeting on a different day than us.”
But all elements of the VFW have the same mission to help local organizations and people, especially veterans in need of financial, medical or any other type of assistance. “That’s how we branch out,” Najdzian says, noting that the VFW works directly with the community and its vets, while national organizations, such as Wounded Warrior Project, can be “CEO top heavy” and don’t help locals as directly.
Right now, Najdzian says the biggest challenge is bringing in young veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “A lot of those guys are young and they’re doing a lot of family things still. They’re not going to come to the VFW post and do things with us. They’re going to go out to their kids’ football games and baseball games,” he continues. “The only time we really start seeing them is when they have problems—when they need to go to the VA or they’re having medical issues or financial issues…when they’re reaching out for help.”
Still, the VFW welcomes all veterans with open arms. “We’re always looking for members, especially now. Three weeks ago we had a funeral for one of the World War II guys and I’ve only got three left who are active in the post here,” Najdzian says. “To me those guys are the greatest generation. The stories they tell are absolutely amazing,” he says, noting that the WWII vet who died, Tony Witek, was in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. “He actually parachuted in and didn’t find anybody for three days,” Najdzian recalls. “He had some stories to tell. These guys, they got hurt, they got shot up, they patched them up and they went right back into the battle. It’s absolutely amazing. Now, you get shot, you go home.”
Njdzian also acknowledges that coming home can be very difficult for soldiers. Few will talk about their experiences, even to family, so it’s vital to spend time with men and women who can relate. “It’s a different click when you talk to a fellow veteran because they were there,” Njdzian says, explaining another important role the VFW plays. “It’s just a different feeling and a different connection.”
Join the Van Rensselaer Skidmore VFW Post No 2476 for Veteran’s Day at the WWI monument in front of the Suffolk County Historical Society at 300 W. Main Street in Riverhead. For tickets to the Dan’s Best of the Best Celebration Concert at Suffolk Theater on November 11 in Riverhead visit BOTBConcert.com.