2017-11-09 / Front Page

VETS: You have a place to go

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer


For families wishing to have a funeral ceremony for a fallen military member, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044 have an honor guard that can attend. Chapter members will present family members with symbolic articles such as a pocket-sized triangular flag, a rose, commemorative coin and other items. The service is free of charge. From left, chapter members Richard Litwin, Joseph Armstrong, Raynald Hallczuk, Carl Rabida and Richard St. Ogne. (Grant McPherson photo) For families wishing to have a funeral ceremony for a fallen military member, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044 have an honor guard that can attend. Chapter members will present family members with symbolic articles such as a pocket-sized triangular flag, a rose, commemorative coin and other items. The service is free of charge. From left, chapter members Richard Litwin, Joseph Armstrong, Raynald Hallczuk, Carl Rabida and Richard St. Ogne. (Grant McPherson photo) BIDDEFORD – Military veterans of any area have a new home base.

The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044 relocated to American Legion Post 26 at 508 Elm St. in Biddeford. The R & R center is located in the basement of the American Legion Post and is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Chapter President Joseph Armstrong said the name comes from the five days off U.S. soldiers were given during the Vietnam War, known colloquially as rest and relaxation. The center first opened Monday, Oct. 9 and Armstrong hopes more people will visit soon.


Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044 has opened a new R & R Center at 508 Elm St. Veterans from any war are welcome and younger veterans and women are encouraged to visit, as well as families of veterans. (Grant McPherson photo) Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044 has opened a new R & R Center at 508 Elm St. Veterans from any war are welcome and younger veterans and women are encouraged to visit, as well as families of veterans. (Grant McPherson photo) “So far it’s been very slow,” he said. “We just announced the opening. Come spring we’ll have a grand opening and a formal dedication down here.”

Armstrong and fellow chapter members have hot dogs, burgers and coffee available. There’s also a T.V. and space for veterans to read a book or play board games. Armstrong serves as the center’s veterans service officer and is available at noon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Armstrong’s goal is for the center to become a place where veterans can relax and forget about the outside world.

Carl Rabida, a Biddeford native and Vietnam Veterans of America member, said he’s struggled in the 50 years since he returned to the U.S.

“Until I met Joe I was basically a homebody,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave the house. Post-traumatic stress disorder had me right by the throat. I didn’t want to know anybody or meet anyone. Joe had an article in the local paper. I read it and it sounded like something I might be interested in. We met over coffee and discussed what was going on in my life. He basically pulled me out of my shell. “

Armstrong said Rabida’s situation is not unusual.

“Unfortunately Carl is typical of a lot of vets,” Armstrong said. “I’m very proud of the progress he’s made. Still today, after 50 years they don’t want to socialize or get out. That is another driving force for us. We want them to come down here and feel safe. We’re not judging anyone. We’re all brothers and sisters.”

For these veterans, recognition of the effects war had on them has taken time. Armstrong said post-traumatic stress disorder has been called many things throughout the country’s history: shell shock in World War II and battle fatigue during the Korean War. Armstrong encouraged young veterans to visit the center and share their experience as well.

“We all walked the same walk together,” he said. “That’s why I want to include everyone to come down here.”

Women are welcome in the center as well. Of the chapter’s 132 members, two of them are women. Armstrong said the military has historically been a predominantly male organization and the roles women have served have gone overlooked.

“Women today, as far as I’m concerned, are the most underappreciated veterans we have,” he said. “They served every bit of time we did, especially today on the front line. They need and deserve recognition and we want to try to get that out to them.”

While membership in the Vietnam Veterans of America is reserved for former military members, anyone aged five and up is welcome to join the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America. The latter organization is dedicated to carrying on the legacy of those who served in Vietnam.

“The mission of Vietnam Veterans of America is what we call a lights out program,” Armstrong said. “Once the last Vietnam Veteran dies our organization ceases to exist.”

However, membership in either organization is not required to visit the center. Raynald Hallczuk, a Vietnam veteran from Arundel, said what happens at the center stays at the center.

“It’s a safe house,” he said. “It’s a place we can expel on our past about how it was over in Vietnam without judgment. It’s a real down to earth place where I feel comfortable.”

No alcohol is served at the center and smoking is not allowed. Armstrong said alcohol sales would help the center raise money but he doesn’t want veterans leaving the center after drinking. The chapter raised $2,500 from a golf tournament over the summer and the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association donated $250. The center is all volunteer run. The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044 splits the cost of building maintenance such as heating oil and electricity with the American Legion Post.

“Any fund raising done is to keep us above board and able to help veterans,” Hallczuk said.

The chapter is a registered nonprofit with the State of Maine. The chapter will assist families of veterans with items such as heating oil and groceries if requested. Veteran families in need can call the center at (207) 494- 9287. Armstrong said the chapter has helped about 25 families within the past five years and hopes to help as many as possible going forward.

“If we can’t help them we will try to find an agency that can,” he said. “We hope we made enough to carry us through the winter so we can help veterans requesting aid. I think this year will be a real tough one with winter.”

The chapter raised $10,000 on GoFundMe to purchase a motorized stair lift for individuals with difficulty walking. Chapter members can also help veterans and their families filling out benefit forms with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Chapter 1044 will accepts donations as well.

“We feel any amount of money is more than we started with,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the investment into the center is because Vietnam veterans were treated so poorly upon arriving home. He said very few people understand the truth of the war.

“I was patriotic there, fighting for my country, my flag,” Armstrong said. “It didn’t take long for my eyes to open up. I was fighting for my brother on my right and my brother on my left to get them home. It was a political war we should not have been involved in. On so many levels we don’t know the true story of Vietnam.”

Rabida feels much the same way.

“The people home didn’t want us (there),” he said. “I didn’t want to be there. The Vietnamese people told us to go home. What’s wrong with that picture. Your head’s going in a lot of directions.”

“I went to Vietnam as a 17-year-old child and I came home a 19-year-old man,” Armstrong said. “I felt my childhood was taken from me.”

Despite everything these veterans have been through, they remain determined to move forward.

“Yes we were hurt when we came home,” Armstrong said. “As we did in Vietnam, we stuck together. Our motto is veterans helping veterans. That’s what it’s all about.”

Donations for the center can be mailed to VVA Chapter 1044, 508 Elm St. Biddeford, Maine 04005.

Contact staff writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

FMI

The Veterans R&R Drop-in Center is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, at Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044, 508 Elm St., Biddeford. Veterans of all eras welcome. Includes coffee, checkers, chess and cribbage. Veterans benefit information available. FMI, contact Joseph Armstrong, 494-9287 or visit www.vva1044maine.org.

Return to top