Williston Park VFW seeks young members to continue legacy

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Charlie Boyd, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, leads last Thursday's meeting of the Williston Park VFW post. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

As he has done for years, 86-year-old Charlie Boyd presided over last Thursday’s monthly meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1688 in Williston Park, leading the regular rituals and cracking jokes.

Ten of the group’s members attended the meeting at Williston Park Village Hall, a number that members said is typical.

Boyd, a U.S. Marine and Korean War veteran from Mineola, will likely cede his job as post commander to Bill Kempner, the post’s vice commander, who at 62 is one of its youngest members.

Kempner, a Roslyn Heights resident and retired U.S. Navy lieutenant, said he wants to attract more members his age and younger to the VFW, one of the nation’s oldest military organizations, whose membership is shrinking and aging.

“We’ve stood the watch. It’s other people’s turn now,” Kempner said. Members have been trying to grow their ranks by word of mouth, but it’s difficult because many younger veterans are too busy, unfamiliar with the VFW or apathetic about joining, Kempner said.

The VFW was founded in 1899, and the Williston Park post was chartered in 1929. The group is open to veterans of any military branch who served in combat on foreign soil or in foreign waters.

The VFW has about 1.7 million members nationally, including members of its auxiliary group for women, according to its website. Its veteran membership peaked at 2.1 million in the 1990s, according to a 2014 Washington Times report.

Membership in the local post dropped to 32 as of this month from 35 last year, according to statewide membership numbers. The nearby Albertson post has also seen a slight drop to 233 from 238.

At their meetings at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month, Williston Park members talk business for about an hour and then socialize over pizza, soda and beer.

The group’s rituals, performed at the start of each meeting emphasize brotherhood and “comradeship,” and community service is a focus of its members.

The post gives money to Veterans Stand Down, a program that helps veterans gain access to programs and services; and America’s VetDogs, which provides service animals for disabled veterans, Boyd said.

Later this month, members will attend several Memorial Day events at schools, churches and village halls, and some will put flags on service members’ graves at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, Boyd said.

“Try to bring a member of your family — your nephew, your son, somebody like that, [to] come along and find out what it’s like, because we’re not going to be able to do it much longer,” Boyd told other members last week.

To Kempner, being a VFW member is as much about pride in America as pride in one’s military service, he said.

The group’s outreach to schools, scouting groups and others is an effort to strengthen the community’s sense of patriotism, which Kempner thinks has weakened in recent years, he said.

“There’s a lot of us to which God, country, mom and apple pie, those aren’t things to laugh at,” Kempner said.

At the start of each monthly meeting, Boyd leads the members in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The practice ensures they won’t forget the words as time goes on, he said.

If younger veterans don’t similarly keep the VFW alive, communities like Williston Park will lose an important part of their national identity, Kempner said.

“If you don’t keep it going, it’s gone,” he said.

The Williston Park post will next meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 8, on the third floor of the Williston Park Village Hall, located at 494 Willis Ave.

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