By Luke Baynes
As a cold November rain fell in misty sheets, Cathy-Jo Eaton stood on the front stoop of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6689 in Essex Junction.
“I love it here,” she said during a quick cigarette break from her Saturday night shift tending bar at the post canteen. “You hear a lot of great stories.”
Inside, as post members helped themselves to a lasagna dinner, Leo Knox sat at the bar with a short glass of beer. A former Marine sergeant, Knox shipped out to the Mediterranean when he was 18, less than a year after the Korean War cease-fire in 1953.
“Back then, Harry Truman had what they called the Truman Doctrine. It had something to do with the spread of Communism over in that European area of Greece and Turkey, so they sent us over there to stem the spread of Communism,” Knox said. “It was a kind of domino effect. Truman figured that if Greece and Turkey fell, (Communism) would keep spreading.”
But Knox’s war memories extend further, back to when he was a boy in Burlington and sat around the radio with his father and grandfather, listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Dec. 8, 1941 speech to Congress, which described the prior day’s attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy.”
“I remember it very, very well. Everybody that was able went into the service. They had the draft and a lot of guys joined and it was a big deal back then,” he said. “Everything was rationed. You had to have stamps for everything. We used to have air raid drills. Everyone in the neighborhood had to turn their lights off. You had air raid wardens for your neighborhood.”
VFW Post 6689 member Floyd Miner, who was 20 when the Korean War broke out, remembered his initial deployment as a member of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team.
“When the Eighth Corps broke out of Pusan and drove the North Korean army up, we had landed on North Korean soil and they drove them right into us. We took care of what we had to take care of,” Miner said.
A Vermont native, Miner said that nothing could have prepared him for the frigidness of a Korean winter.
“What we had was World War II equipment fighting the Korean War,” he said. “We had no winter equipment, really. It was cold. It got so cold at night that the mountains turned blue.”
Miner recalled that Korean War veterans received little fanfare when they came home, just eight years after World War II veterans received a hero’s welcome when returning stateside.
“When we came home, we weren’t treated much better than the Vietnam veterans, really. They frowned on us,” he said. “They didn’t call it a war. It was a conflict. They called us baby killers and everything else. There was no big homecoming. We just got discharged and walked out and that was it.”
John Boardman, quartermaster of Post 6689, speculated that the shabby treatment of Korean War veterans was because unlike World War II, there was no clear winner.
“It’s a cease-fire. As of right now, anybody that serves 30 consecutive days in Korea can belong to this organization, because it’s a cease-fire. It’s still considered to be an active war zone,” Boardman said. “You could be stationed in Korea today—you don’t have to work on the line or anything else like that—and you can belong to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.”
Boardman, a 32-year Army veteran who did a tour in Iraq in 2005, thinks that public support for the military increased after the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“One of the reasons why they believe we’re doing something halfway decent over there is 9/11,” Boardman said. “They weren’t really backing us when we were over there prior to that, but when that happened, everyone seemed to rally behind us.”
VFW State Commander Allston Gilmond explained that the VFW, unlike the American Legion, is limited to veterans who have earned a combat action ribbon.
“You have to be the veteran of a foreign conflict, which is the uniqueness between us and the American Legion,” Gilmond said.
He added that VFW membership in Vermont spans veterans from World War II to the present conflict in Afghanistan.
“The uniqueness with us is that if you’re an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran and you walk through the door of the VFW, you know that the veterans that are sitting at the bar have been through what you’ve been through,” Gilmond said.
Post 6689 Commander Edmond Daudelin agreed, remarking that his post has “about a half dozen” veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It helps our post to perpetuate,” Daudelin said. “We’ve been through the same things. Anyone who’s been under fire comes back with the same PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues. It’s just a matter of trying to work through them. We want to make sure the younger veteran knows that they can have a place to vent if they want, or just have a place to be around other veterans.”
Gilmond noted that the VFW also opens its doors to the community for periodic events, such as the Men’s Auxiliary’s Friday night fish frys or the Women’s Auxiliary’s Sunday morning breakfasts.
“We’re very community-based,” Gilmond said. “Everyone knows that we take care of veterans and their families. What they don’t realize is the amount of community work that we do.”
At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) VFW Post 6689 will hold a Veterans Day ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park, located at Five Corners in Essex Junction. It will be followed by an open house at the post.
“Memorial Day we honor the dead,” Daudelin explained. “Veterans Day we honor soldiers who are presently in uniform, who were in uniform and even those who want to be in uniform. It’s honoring the living.”
Knox, who first suited up for active duty in 1954, said time hasn’t diminished the honor of putting on the uniform of his country.
“I still wear the uniform,” Knox said. “I’m very proud of that uniform. When you put it on, it means something.”