South Queens VFW Post Offers Refuge for Veterans

A Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Queens has become a home base for some of the 6,170 residents from the borough who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

T he Edward R. Miller VFW Post 7336 sits behind a Mobil gas station in residential Queens. The front door remains locked even during open hours. A live-feed video camera silently inspects anyone who buzzes the entrance bell. Like most VFW posts, members and their guests are the only people allowed inside. Yet, this is no ordinary VFW post.

“People know if you come back and have problems, send them to this post and we’ll get you where you need to go,” says Tom Mazza, a large bearded man, who served in Vietnam from 1968-1969. Mazza is the Quartermaster and second-in-command at the post.

Mazza and the rest of the post pride themselves on two distinct characteristics: their dedicated advocacy for returning veterans and their commitment as community benefactors. Even new members are proud of the post’s high community involvement. According to Commander Israel Rivera, The Edward R. Miller Post in Ridgewood has eight members who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Of the 14 other VFW posts in Queens, none have a similar number of recently returned veterans.

“When you have an organization like 7336 and you see what they have on their calendar and what they have going on for the next month, it makes you want to be more involved,” said Sean Baltrusitis, a former Master Sergeant in the Army who completed three tours of duty in Iraq.

Baltrusitis spent 23 years in the Army. When he returned to Queens and tried participating in Ridgewood Post 123, Baltrusitis found it lacked the qualities of Post 7336.

“Others are fruitlessly spending money, and are not a positive role model for the community,” said Baltrusitus. He characterized other VFWs as “more of a socialized canteen.”

James Malamas, 32, an ex-Operations Specialist for the Navy, is another recent addition to the post. When Malamas decided to get involved with the VFW, he knew what to look for.

“I just walked in and asked a couple quick questions. And I asked what do they do for the community,” said Malamas. “I didn’t want to join a post that just sits there and doesn’t help people out or help each other out.”

This post has donated money and flags to local schools and sponsors a little league team. They’ve helped find funds for people that can’t afford wheelchairs or beds. They run an annual bus trip to Calverton National Cemetery for family members of soldiers killed in action so that they can visit the graves of their loved ones.

Each spring members hold a parade that culminates in a free barbecue attended by over 400 people, according to Mazza, the post’s quartermaster. They bus in currently enlisted soldiers and sailors from ships that arrive during Fleet Week, which falls at the same time as their parade.

“We let everyone eat, and to say thank you for the community like that, we don’t charge for food,” said Malamas. “We just sit down and have a good time.”

Post 7336’s veteran advocacy work also attracts recent veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

For example, Baltrusitis’s stepfather suffers from a very acute muscle disease akin to Lou Gehrig’s disease which keeps him from certain activities. When the Department of Veterans Affairs turned down his application for a home improvement project, post 7336 contacted a service representative from the organization who met with Baltrusitis’s step-dad and helped him re-file his claim.

According to Mazza, Post 7336 helps veterans navigate the red tape and paperwork necessary to execute disability filings and health claims. The post advocates on behalf of veterans needing cancer treatments and recent veterans battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“They don’t give you anything, you’ve got to fight for it,” said Mazza. He sees the post as a resource for veterans engaged in that fight.

The combination of recent veterans and long-standing members helps strenghten Post 7336.

“The old and the new is a great chemistry. You learn how they used to do things, and how things need to get done today,” said Baltrusitis. The older members share knowledge of the bureaucracy newer veterans might face while younger members contribute their familiarity with electronic and internet resources.

“That’s one thing that no one can ever take away from me,” said Baltrusitis. “I served my country and now I’m able to serve the veterans coming home around me.”

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