By Jim Smith
John Chalker deserves another medal. He has a bunch under glass at his Port Washington home. The medal he deserves now is for resurrecting Port Washington’s Henderson-Marino VFW Post 1819, which seemed destined to close before he became its commander in early 2006.
On Sept. 14, there was a photo op at the post on Mohegan Avenue in Manorhaven to mark the near-completion of its renovation, helped by a $20,000 grant from the Farmingdale-based nonprofit Rebuilding
Together Long Island. Volunteers refurbished the meeting room with new sheetrock walls, wiring and lighting, and a 25-foot ramp. Chalker, 64, who spent 32 years as a Port Washington Police patrolman before retiring in 2013, is stepping down as post commander.
“It’s a whole new building,” he said, “so it’s time for me to go. We have a pulse. I turned it around. I’m not leaving the post but I’m not going to hold an office anymore.”
Chalker has led a charmed life. He said he has survived 14 cancer-related surgeries stemming from his work in 2001-2 at Ground Zero after 9/11.
In 2005 at age 51, while a National Guard sergeant with the Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment in Manhattan, he was mustered for service in Iraq. Chalker also had served three years of active duty stateside from 1970-73, and had deployed as an NG in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm to Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait in 1990-91.
Riding in a convoy in May 2005 in the right rear seat of a Humvee that contained three other soldiers, Chalker’s left foot was injured in an IED blast. He finally had surgery on it this past Sept. 1 at Northport VA Medical Center.
“If it was any bigger of a bomb, I’d be dead,” Chalker said. “It blew right under me.” Fortunately Chalker was sitting on an expired police vest panel and had put another panel on the floor under his feet; they absorbed the shrapnel. “The bomb [blast] smashed my foot so flat it got rid of the arch,” he said. So when he returned to the U.S., he was a village cop with an actual flat foot!
“It was like hammering my foot with a sledge hammer,” he said. “I took some sand and shrapnel in my fingers and bled a little but it was nothing serious. The other guys weren’t hurt. It’s something you never forget. When I see a cop now, I tell him thanks. I can’t be the only soldier saved by the cops [who donated the vest panels].”
Chalker said initially doctors told him they couldn’t guarantee a good result if they performed surgery, so he used pain-killers to cope until he could no longer stand it. “I had to get the surgery,’ he said.
He had joined the Glen Cove VFW in 1999 and transferred to Post 1819 in 2005.
“It was sad,” he said of the post then. “It was disorganized, the paperwork and files hadn’t been maintained. There was a raccoon infestation, electrical problems, pavement problems…It was in the process of coming up for a vote to sell it…I brought energy. I was a younger man. I felt the survivors of Marino and Henderson wanted vets to use the building.” (The post was formed in 1930, named to honor local World War I casualties Pvts. John Michael Marino and William E. Henderson.)
“I cleaned out the building,” Chalker said. “I felt it was a crime to let it go, an insult to those families who had donated the property.” He said he got donations from the Peter and Jeri Dejana Family Foundation to convert the heating system from oil to gas, replace plumbing, update appliances, redo the bar area and landscape the property. “Members pitched in,” he said. “We raised funds, got donations. I did a lot of the work myself.” He said member Jerry Tedeschi secured the latest $20,000 grant after seeing a message about it from the Nassau County VFW commander.
“When I was on my rounds,” Chalker said of his days as a patrolman, “I’d see a guy wearing a [military] cap while I was on patrol and start talking to him. He’d decide to join. The Vietnam vets had a bad taste in their mouths from the prior cadre…the World War II guys who alienated them by insulting them, belittling their service…I told the Vietnam guys ‘It’s a whole new ballgame; it’s all ours now, the WW II guys are dead. It’s what we make of it.’ ”
The post continues its VFW mission.
“We’re a fraternal, patriotic, political organization,” Chalker said. “We advocate for veterans benefits and rights. We do community service – dedicating parks, showing up at parades and ceremonies, speaking to kids at schools.”
Most VFW post commanders serve a year or two. Chalker’s being in charge so long is unusual.
“I was doing a pretty good job,” he said, “and they just let me run with it. Nobody else wanted it. I got the first black member, the first woman, the first Latino, the first Oriental. And they’re younger and inspired to do things. It’s running well. I get a psychic reward out of helping vets. I think a lot of members felt that from me…But it’s time for a change. Somebody will take it. I’ll force the issue.” (Senior vice commander Andy Tollefsen is the odds-on favorite.)
Whoever does should give Chalker a medal.