By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
As the site of this year's state convention for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Havre has become the temporary home for hundreds of former U.S. service members. From World War II to Desert Storm, vets from every conflict and every branch of the military have descended on Havre to honor those in uniform.
By Thursday, more than 220 vets and members of the auxiliaries had registered for the convention, and more were expected today. The convention includes a number of social events, but also gives members a chance to discuss veterans issues and honor fallen comrades.
On Thursday afternoon, local VFW Post 497 sponsored a barbecue for convention participants, blocking off a portion of Second Street in Havre. Dozens of veterans wearing VFW attire adorned with service pins grabbed a bite to eat and took a few minutes to socialize.
Among the attendees was Gerald Mallo, state VFW commander and a Vietnam veteran who lives in White Sulphur Springs. Mallo, a 22-year member of the VFW, served in Vietnam off and on between 1965 to 1975.
"I was glad to see that over with," he said.
Mallo said he has been impressed with the hospitality vets have been shown in Havre.
"This is the third time I've been to the convention here, and I've always enjoyed it," Mallo said.
Havre also hosted the state VFW convention in 1996 and 1999.
Gail Fish, president of the state VFW Ladies Auxiliary, said she also is happy to see the convention return to Havre.
"Havre has shown us a lot of hospitality. It's great to be here," she said.
To join the Ladies Auxiliary, a woman must have a husband or immediate family member who served in overseas combat.
Fish has had no shortage of relatives who fit that description. Her first husband was a Marine on Iwo Jima during World War II and her second husband served in Korea. Her two brothers were in Vietnam and her sons served in Desert Storm, she said.
Although the state VFW convention includes a number of social events, it also provides a forum to discuss veterans' issues.
"We hear what VA hospitals are doing throughout the state and hear reports from the post commanders," Fish said.
"We also elect new officers," Mallo said. "We can't leave without new officers installed."
Local VFW member Jed Damson said one of the VFW's primary roles is to ensure that Congress preserves benefits for veterans.
"They have a tendency to shirk the veterans a lot," Damson said. "I don't say that to criticize anybody, but I think being a vet is one of those things that unless you've experienced it, you can't really appreciate it."
America's soldiers have earned the support of their country, added Damson, who served in the Army for six years, including a combat tour in Vietnam.
"I think the veterans should be taken care of. That's what he did, he put his life on the line," he said.
Charles Larsen, a 41-year veteran of the U.S. Army, agreed that preserving veterans benefits is important. Larsen served in Germany during World War II, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge before being transferred to the Philippines.
"After the war, I re-enlisted and found myself in Korea on the Fourth of July, 1950," he said.
Larsen, from Helena, was among the many vets who said they enjoy having the state VFW convention in Havre.
"The last time this was in here, my wife was with me," he said. "The only reason she came was to see (Havre Beneath the Streets)."
U.S. Air Force veteran Bob Smith, who was last year's state commander, said retired veterans appreciate the younger generation serving in the military.
"One of our goals is to support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and anywhere else they are stationed," he said during the barbecue.
The barbecue followed a memorial ceremony held in the Vets Club. VFW and Ladies Auxiliary members honored those from each of seven districts in Montana who have died. After a prayer and tributes by state leaders, the "departed comrades" were given a final crisp salute as "Taps" was played.
Several national VFW representatives are attending Montana's state VFW convention. Celia Davis, national secretary-treasurer of the Ladies Auxiliary, and Larry LeFebvre, assistant adjutant general of the national VFW, are in Havre for the event.
Damson said local VFW members have worked tirelessly make the convention in Havre a success.
"It's taken a lot of work to make this happen," he said. "We're trying to set a higher standard for other conventions. It's been real good so far. One of our goals was to get the community involved with this, and everyone we've worked with has been great."
Local post quartermaster Rick Wyer agreed.
"It's a lot of work, but I think everyone is pretty pleased with what we've done," he said.
Ultimately, the purpose of the convention is to honor the sacrifice of those who have served their country in uniform.
"The VFW is to support veterans," Larsen said. "That's what we're all about. Not just the veterans of foreign wars, but all veterans."