VFW post is on a roll

Polishing cloth in hand, Bob Nielsen, right, talks with a member of the “VFW Riders” motorcycle group about winning a new Harley Davidson motorcycle in a raffle conducted by the Port Orchard VFW Ladies Auxiliary. KATHY REED / WHIDBEY CROSSWIND

Bob Nielsen of Oak Harbor made two very important decisions last October.

First, he decided to join the Whitehead-Muzzall post 7392 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, located on Goldie Road in Oak Harbor.

Then he decided to buy not just one, but two raffle tickets for a chance to win a motorcycle. Both decisions appear to have been good ones.

In a drawing held March 26, nearly six months after buying his tickets, Nielsen found out he was the winner. He was presented with his brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle last Friday evening, and while there was a lot of joking and good humor at the award ceremony, it was no April Fool’s prank.

“A couple of fellas asked me if I was interested in buying a ticket for $20, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll take a ticket,’” Nielsen recounted. “I’d never bought a $20 dollar raffle ticket before, so I decided to buy another one. It was the second ticket that won – number 1-5-7-7.”

Nearly all the members of the local post’s new motorcycle group, the VFW Riders, were on hand at Friday’s presentation, where Nielsen was handed the title and keys to his new Harley. Not a bad outcome for a $40 investment.

“It was a damn good investment,” Nielsen said while perched on the saddle of his new bike. “I’ve never had the money to afford a bike like this. It’s just incredible. It’s beyond belief.”

In addition to his new bike, Nielsen has the satisfaction of knowing the money he spent went to a good cause. Half the proceeds from the raffle were divided between the Wounded Warrior Project and the Fisher House Foundation, which provides a place for military families to stay while a loved one is hospitalized. The remaining proceeds will be divided among other programs the VFW supports.

The motorcycle raffle was the brainchild of Deborah Cahill, a member of the Port Orchard VFW’s Ladies Auxiliary, and the head of the fundraising committee. She purchased the Harley for the raffle.

Raffle organizer Deborah Cahill shakes Bob Nielsen’s hand after he was presented with the raffle prize – a new Harley Davidson. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

“I knew we couldn’t bake enough cookies and banana bread to do any real good,” Cahill said. “I decided we needed to ‘go big or go home.’ We went big.”

Cahill is a prime example of what the VFW is about. Her husband, Army Sgt. Stephen Cahill, was a career military man who served his country for 34-and-a-half years. He suffered a traumatic head injury in Iraq on his last tour of duty and came home for treatment.

“When he came home from Iraq as an injured soldier, the military was just setting up the Wounded Warrior Battalion,” Cahill said. “The first place he took me when he got home was Fisher House. He took me there because he knew I did a lot of fundraising with the VFW and the place needs a lot of help.”

Sgt. Cahill died of a brain aneurism three years ago. Deborah found strength through her connection to the VFW.

“They’re my family. If they weren’t here when my husband died, I don’t know what I’d have done,” she said. “I got calls from someone every day to check on me. And they did that the whole time he was deployed, too. [VFW members] take care of their own and their families.”

Local post commander Pete Sill said that is exactly why the VFW exists.

“Our mission is ‘to serve the living while honoring the dead,’” Sill said. “If people were to come in and ask about our programs, I’m sure they would be impressed by what we do.”

Post Commander Pete Sill displays the leather vest he wears with the “VFW Riders.” Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

The local Whitehead-Muzzall post, which was established in 1946, is the fifth largest post in the state, boasting 983 members along with a Ladies Auxiliary of nearly 400. The dollar amount of disability claims brought in for local veterans last year alone is staggering.

“The two volunteer service officers here brought in $800,000 in claims for disability last year,” said Keith Wooldrige, commander of VFW District 15. “We serve our vets, absolutely. They can be 85 years old and come in 60 years after serving to apply for disability benefits, or they can be 21.”

While helping veterans with disability claims is a large part of what the VFW does, the local post and auxiliary are involved with other programs as well, such as the National Home for Children and the United Services Organization, and a multitude of other national programs. Local posts help support them through fundraising efforts like the motorcycle raffle.

But the VFW doesn’t just support national programs. Post 7392 has adopted Goldie Road and Ault Field Road to Highway 20 for a monthly cleanup. The post will also loan medical equipment to anyone who asks, veteran or not.

Wooldrige and Sill say gaining new members is the biggest challenge they face. The motorcycle raffle, which was held at posts across the state, was a big boost.

“The best part of the whole raffle was watching the VFW posts and their auxiliaries pull together as one to achieve a worthy goal,” Cahill said. “And we recruited 500 new VFW members.”

Another challenge facing the VFW is overcoming the perception that the post is just another bar.

“Most VFW’s don’t have bars,” said Wooldrige. “Out of the five posts in District 15, only two have bars.”

“The bar is just a quirk of membership and is separate from any official VFW-sponsored events,” Sill said. “What we do is behind the scenes and not really visible to the average citizen. We are trying to get new members to realize they are not joining to be able to sit at the bar, but to assist in the administering of the various programs.”

Sill has been the commander of the Whitehead-Muzzall post since 2009. He will be stepping down as the leader when his term ends June 30, although he plans to remain an active member. His advice to the next commander?

“Stay with our mission – that’s supporting our veterans,” he said.

Bob Nielsen gets the feel of his new motorcycle, which he won as part of a fundraising raffle by the Port Orchard VFW Ladies Auxiliary. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind