In July 2017, the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization hosted their 118th annual convention at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. VFW National Commander Brian Duffy presided, and the keynote speaker this year was Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David J. Shulkin, who joined the award recipients and other guest speakers.
Nearly 1.7 million members were represented by their 10,000 VFW and Auxiliary delegates at the weeklong convention. The body meets annually to elect new leadership and approve resolutions that guide the national organization’s mission to support veteran and military programs across the country. The organization also hosted a free two-day walk-in claims clinic and health fair for all veterans, service members and their families.
Convention delegates recognized prominent individuals and organizations for their support of veterans and military personnel. Eleven national awards were presented to the following honorees.
VFW NATIONAL TEACHER AWARDS – THERESA EARLY, JEFFREY BENES AND STEVE JOHNSON
Three exceptional teachers accepted the Smart/Maher National Citizenship Education Teacher for their outstanding commitment to teaching Americanism and patriotism to their students. The award honors one local teacher at the elementary, middle and high school levels for promoting patriotism, civic responsibility and American flag etiquette in the school. Each teacher received an honorarium of $1,000 for professional development and $1,000 for their school.
The elementary school award was given to Theresa Early, a special education teacher at Laurel Ridge Elementary in Fairfax, VA. She involved students in the school’s Military Kids Club, established a student color guard and encouraged activities during Constitution Day.
At the middle school level, Jeffrey Benes, a geography teacher at Antioch MS in Gladstone, MO, was chosen for his focus on a civically-minded curriculum. He chaperones for annual trips to the National WWI Museum, is involved in the school’s Veteran’s Day program and is dedicated to helping students understand and be active in the political process. A veteran of the Iraq War and a Life member of VFW Post 7397 in Lenexa, KA, Benes’ passionate and energetic teaching style makes an important impact on his students.
Steve Johnson, a science teacher, was selected for constructing a Wall of Heroes in his classroom at Churchill County High School in Fallon, NV. He organizes students and the surrounding community to create care packages for troops. His recognition of local veterans and active service members creates a civically-minded environment year-round.
VFW OUTSTANDING POST SPECIAL PROJECT AWARD – VFW POST 11999, CLOUDCROFT, NM
VFW Post 11999 in Cloudcroft, NM, received this prestigious Fred C. Hall Memorial in honor of its “Warriors in Transition Event” project. Commander Jack Smith accepted it on behalf of his post. This award recognizes VFW Posts, County Councils, Districts and Departments for unique and outstanding community service projects. Award honorees exemplify an extraordinary mission of service to others.
The Cloudcroft, NM, post is being recognized for helping service members from nearby Fort Bliss, TX. Since 2011, Members of the Warrior Transition Battalion and their families have enjoyed healing and peaceful recuperation from the trauma of war in the beautiful mountain town. Cloudcroft is one of the highest alpine locations in the U.S. and a popular tourist destination in the Lincoln National Forest. Post members have worked tirelessly to ensure visiting service members and their families would receive accommodations, meals and outdoor recreational activities free of charge.
Representatives from the Post were honored at the National Convention and received a $10,000 service scholarship for future community projects. They will proudly display the plaque awarded for working on this exceptional project.
VFW AMERICANISM AWARD – DELTA AIRLINES HONOR GUARD
This award honors those who have made an outstanding contribution to American principles. Delta’s Honor Guard is a special group of employee volunteers in Atlanta who greet every plane that carries the remains of a fallen military service member. Delta’s General Manager of Worldport Operations Johnny Boynton, Aircraft Maintenance Technician Jerome White and Operations Service Manager Daniel Howard accepted the award on behalf of the entire honor guard team.
The Honor Guard, many of whom have served in the armed forces, has paid tribute to more than 5,300 U.S. troops in the past 12 years. They give fallen members on their way home a solemn and dignified ceremony performed on the tarmac.
As a casket is pulled from the aircraft, flags from all five military branches are displayed behind a military escort. The lead Honor Guard member recites a prayer and presents a Delta Honor Guard coin to the military escort or next of kin of the fallen service member.
Delta’s Honor Guard has transported fallen members of both current and foreign conflicts in Vietnam, Korea and even World War II. The Guard also solemnly donates their time to pay tribute to first responders, firefighters and law enforcement.
VFW ARMED FORCES AWARD – GEN. RICHARD A. CODY, U.S. ARMY RETIRED AND CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF HOMES FOR OUR TROOPS
General USA, Ret. Richard A. Cody, was honored with the Armed Forces Award, which is given to members of the Armed Forces for outstanding contributions to national security annually. General Cody, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division, served in six of the Army’s combat divisions during his 36 years tenure. The General, who was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame for his 5,000 hours of helicopter flight, currently serves as the National Chairman for Homes for Our Troops, an organization that builds and donates adaptive homes for severely wounded veterans.
Cody’s leadership was particularly effective as the Army’s vice chief of staff during the 2007 crisis at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. A Life member of Post 792 in Montpelier, Vt., he joined the VFW in 1977.
He recalled coming home after 1991’s Persian Gulf War and being welcomed by VFW and Auxiliary members at 1 a.m. at an airport in Bangor, Maine. “It moved me to watch these people who didn’t even know us come out and thank us,” said Cody, chairman of the board of Homes for Our Troops, which builds and donates adaptive homes for severely wounded Post-9/11 veterans.
VFW NEWS MEDIA AWARD – DARRELL EHRLICK, EDITOR, BILLINGS GAZETTE
Darrell Ehrlick, editor of The Billings Gazette, in Billings, Montana, has been recognized for his series of articles titled “Vietnam Voices.” The national award was presented for his honest and forthright reporting, which became an outstanding contribution to a better understanding of our American way of life, its institutions and interests. Ehrlick accepted the gold medal, a certificate and $2,500 honorarium at the annual national convention.
The editor compiled the personal histories so future families and students can read firsthand accounts of Vietnam. His series of articles commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War by sharing the voices, faces and words of 79 Vietnam vets. The powerful series of articles featured the words of men and women who had served in the unpopular war. The Gazette editor shared his plans to donate the $2500 honorarium to a charitable cause.
VFW ACCREDITED SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE YEAR AWARD – RAYMOND DENISEWICH
Retired Army Col. Raymond Denisewich was awarded as VFW’s Accredited Service Representative of the Year 2017 for his tireless work and commitment. He secured a $30,000 grant from the state of Rhode Island’s veterans affairs office to increase his capabilities to assist veterans.
An Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, the colonel served 36 years in uniform. He is a Life member of the Cranston, RI, VFW Post 2812. As the Department Service Officer for VFW Rhode Island, Denisewich is credited with successfully streamlining office procedures, enhancing electronic recordkeeping and developing and expanding higher-quality training methods. His efficiency measures expanded the success of the program that serves veterans.
There are nearly 1,950 VA-accredited service officers worldwide. Together, they help veterans recoup benefits earned from the VA. In 2016, the group recovered $7 billion in earned benefits. One recent accomplishment is that veterans can now view wait times of all appointments at VA facilities.
VFW HALL OF FAME AWARD – COMBAT-WOUNDED IRAQ VETERAN AND COMEDIAN BOBBY HENLINE
Henline’s distinguished service earned him the Hall of Fame Award. His outstanding contributions were rendered in the field of entertainment. Henline, a standup comedian, uses humor to reach newly injured service members.
As a survivor of severe burns from a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, he uses the healing power of laughter to help heal the invisible wounds. Henline served in the Persian Gulf War with D Trp., 5th Bn., 73rd Inf. Regt., 82nd Abn. Div.
Henline knows firsthand that laughter can help the healing process, especially during the hard times. He spent months recuperating at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio from his injuries. A burn scar covers most of his face and head, he struggles to open his left eye due to scar tissue and parts of his ears are missing.
He overcame enormous physical and emotional challenges during his recovery. He continues to challenge himself every time he gets on stage to perform. When he does his comedy routine at special military shows or for wounded warriors in hospitals, his message is that he is grateful to have survived and that the soldiers will get past their current state.
VFW CITIZENSHIP AWARD – TAPS PRESIDENT/FOUNDER BONNIE CARROLL
Bonnie Carroll was the honoree of the 2017 James E. Van Zandt Citizenship Award. The award recognizes significant contributions to the spirit of service and dedication to the nation that inspires us to display better citizenship.
Carroll founded Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to provide compassionate care, casework assistance and emotional support for those affected by the death of a military loved one. Her significant and continued dedication offers hope and healing to the families of fallen veterans.
Carroll, a veteran herself, founded TAPS after the death of her husband in an Army C-12 plane crash on Nov. 12, 1992. She is a 2015 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is also a former staffer in the Reagan and Bush White Houses and currently serves as the President and Founder of TAPS.
The Defense Department recognized her work by awarding her the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service. In addition to numerous other awards, she has also received the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal and the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award.
VFW AERONAUTICS & AEROSPACE AWARD – NASA ASTRONAUT AND NAVY CAPT. CHRISTOPHER J. CASSIDY
Gold Medal and Citation was awarded for accomplished development both scientifically and technologically. Cassidy currently serves as NASA’s 14th Chief Astronaut. In this role, he oversees flight assignments, mission preparation and on-orbit support of U.S. space crews. The Navy Captain, a Life member of Post 1, served 10 years as a Navy SEAL before becoming an astronaut.
At NASA, Cassidy had some remarkable achievements. He was the 500th person in history to fly into space, and he served as the Flight Engineer on the first ever successful expedited docking to the Space Station, completing it in six hours instead of the standard two days.
In total, the Navy Captain spent 182 days in space. During his spaceflights, he completed a total of six spacewalks with an accumulated 31 hours and 14 minutes of spacewalk time.
Captain Cassidy was an Honor graduate of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Class 192 and was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat leadership service in Afghanistan.
VFW VOICE OF DEMOCRACY – 1ST-PLACE WINNER SAVANNAH WITTMAN
Savannah Wittman, of Angels Camp, CA, won the annual Voice of Democracy scholarship competition. This year’s essay topic was, “My Responsibility to America.” The program has made these awards annually since 1947.
As the top winner, she was presented with the T.C. Selman Memorial Scholarship $30,000 award and got to present the essay at the Convention. The VFW Post 12118 and its Auxiliary in nearby Copperopolis, CA, sponsored Wittman’s submission.
INTRODUCTION OF THE BUDDY POPPY CHILD VFW NATIONAL HOME FOR CHILDREN-ISABEL MARVIN
The organization’s mission is to provide children and families of service members a nurturing community. Founded in 1925, this is a place where the families left behind by war could keep their families intact, even when their serviceman didn’t come home. Today, it is a living memorial to all veterans.
Thirteen-year-old Isabel Marvin is this year’s Buddy Poppy Child. She lives in the Florida House with her family. Isabel’s great grandfather served in the Army, as did her father. He fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The family is grateful for the opportunity and all the hard work done by those who support the National Home.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars organization recognized these 11 prominent individuals and organizations for their support of veterans and military personnel. Additionally, delegates represented local Posts at the 118th annual convention in New Orleans.