Laguna’s VFW Seeks a New Lifeline

VFW Commander Arnie Silverman, left, joined by quartermaster Kim Skelton and member Ed Merrilees, presented a plaque to longtime Laguna Beach resident Walter Von Gremp, making Von Gremp and his wife Ann honorary post members for their extreme generosity to veterans.

Arnie Silverman served in the Korean War as a forward observer for a mortar platoon. Over half a century later, that experience qualifies him to be a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and to serve anew, this time as a mentor with Santa Ana’s Combat Veterans Court, where defendants who agree to an 18-month rehab and mentoring program can avoid jail for misdemeanors such as DUIs and drug possession.

Last week, the commander of Laguna Beach’s VFW post 5868 attended the graduation of a vet he once deemed “impossible.” His protégé returned from overseas duty suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Facing three DUI arrests and a spousal abuse charge, the vet was allowed to join the program. For 18 months, he broke every rule, cheated, failed routine drug tests and was abusive to counselors. He finally began to turn around when he saw the value in accepting his mentors’ help in redirecting his trajectory.

His ex-wife and kids also attended the graduation. Now, instead of jail he’s enrolled in college.

“It was one of the most beautiful things you can imagine,” said Silverman. To ensure others benefit from similar relationships, he is striving to revitalize the 66-year-old Laguna VFW post. With few new recruits from those who served overseas and an aging membership, there are fewer volunteers to respond to the needs of local veterans and to raise $4,000 annually to cover operating costs for insurance, a web site, and sending out newsletters, as well as charitable expenses.

In the past, VFW relied on an Octoberfest to fundraise. The Laguna post has no income-producing asset such as a bar to rent out for community events. Fortunately, the local American Legion post, which welcomes active duty and retired service members who have served anywhere, offers the VFW free meeting space once a month. But with only 10 of their 100 members truly active, Silverman realized that he could no longer organize a food-oriented fundraiser and also needed to begin succession planning.

An epiphany provided Silverman a solution: a raffle. If successful, he envisions an annual event.

To that end, VFW is currently selling raffle tickets for $10 or three for $25. First prize is a new 16-gigabit iPad with wi-fi valued at $499; second prize is dinner for four at the Loft at Montage resort, excluding alcoholic beverages; and third prize is a $100 gift certificate for any Olive Garden restaurant.

Tickets can be purchased by sending a check along with name, address and phone number, to VFW Post 5868, P.O. Box 629, Laguna Beach, CA 92652; or by visiting www.vfw5868.org and clicking on PayPal. The drawing will be held at the post’s monthly meeting on Dec. 6 at Legion Hall, which will be conducted by an independent, non-VFW member.

To refill the roster, Silverman seeks new and younger members to ensure he can pass the torch. Since Laguna’s housing costs preclude many young veterans, Silverman prospects in communities that lack their own post, such as Irvine and his own town, Laguna Niguel. He recently signed on two young veterans from Irvine.

Recruiting and retaining young veterans has proved challenging to VFW posts across the country, said  James Rowoldt, who runs the VFW’s California state headquarters. Younger veterans tend to use social media to interact rather than meeting at a post. “We need to look at better ways to bring them in and to keep them,” he said, such as making the posts more family oriented.

He discounted the notion that a generation gap divides veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and previous wars. “We share a common experience regardless of age,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that we all had somebody shooting at us.”

While the VFW is a national nonprofit, each post performs whatever services they see a need for locally, as long as the meet certain reporting criteria and keep their records straight.

Besides mentoring, Silverman and other members of the Laguna Beach VFW assist fellow veterans to obtain benefits due them by helping them fill out complex documents, provide rides to appointments, visit hospitalized vets, and attend funerals and memorial services. They participate in an annual carnival day at the Long Beach Veterans Hospital, and join the American Legion in marking holidays with pageantry and in treating convalescing veterans to dinner and a performance of the Pageant of the Masters each summer.

The VFW also gets involved with the Boy Scouts and the schools, such as giving an award to the graduating senior who writes the best essay on “Why I’m proud to be an American.”

And Silverman periodically visits Laguna’s homeless shelter to chat with any veterans and see if he can assist.

“We’re a good bunch,” said Silverman, and, given the aging membership, “there are good opportunities to quickly become an officer,” he added, only half joking.

For raffle or VFW info contact Commander Arnie Silverman at (949) 643-5534 or Bill Kremer at (949) 494-8616.

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  1. Tim von Gremp

    That picture is great, could I get a larger resolution?

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