Published Date Written by Dan Miller
What a difference five years makes.
In 2009, Middletown VFW Post 1620 was such an embarrassment to the state VFW that it closed the post and placed it in trusteeship for not adhering to VFW bylaws and procedures.
The post reopened soon after, but the long journey to restore trust among veterans and the community had just begun.
It all seems like a distant bad memory now.
Today, the post and its outgoing commander, Donnie Thompson, are being held up as a shining example of what a VFW post is supposed to be.
During a ceremony on Tuesday, Aug. 12, district and state VFW officials presented Thompson and the post with the national VFW’s “All-American Post Commander” award for 2013-14.
Middletown is one of just 10 posts in Pennsylvania to receive the award, and one of only 197 VFW posts worldwide, said David Sandman, spokesman for the state VFW.
“It’s a prestigious honor,” National VFW Commander William Thien said in an email statement. “The criteria for this honor are based on outstanding achievements in membership growth and participation in other VFW programs that benefit veterans and their communities.”
“These commanders and their VFW posts showcase the reason why the VFW exists: to represent, serve and assist veterans of all ages and to have a positive influence on their local communities,” Thien said.
Technically, the award goes to Thompson. But it’s a shared honor, said Thompson, who was elected commander in October 2009 as part of the required infusion of new leadership for the post to emerge from trusteeship.
He has been re-elected each year until this June, when Thompson felt it time to hand the reins to someone else. John Stutzman recently took over as new post commander.
“The very first meeting I attended, the state representatives were here to close us down,” Stutzman recalled. “Without Donnie at the helm we would have sunk for sure.”
Under Thompson’s leadership, the post installed new accounting procedures, such as having all checks signed by two people. Now “people see what we are bringing in and that this is where the money goes,” Stutzman said.
Rebuilding the post’s ties with the community has been a much higher mountain to climb, Thompson said.
“We had to break the ice and get back into the community and build that relationship out in the community, get that name back for us,” he said. “It took a lot of hard work and a lot of fundraisers to get things on track and going in the right direction.”
In March 2010, Post 1620 held its first “Walk for the Wounded,” an event that raised about $5,000 that the post donated to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The walk was a turning point in the post’s comeback.
“It really showed people what we were about, which brought some more vets in.’’ Thompson said. “That was huge for us. We just built off of that.”
The ball has kept on rolling ever since.
In 2012, the post surprised the Middletown Police Department with a $5,000 gift that the cops used to buy special protective headgear.
The post has its own junior high school essay contest, and assists in the annual Tribute to the Troops at the Elks Theatre. Post members spend weekends sleeping in the streets to raise money for homeless veterans. These are just a few examples of how the post is involved in the community and in helping veterans.
Perhaps most impressive, post membership is growing as World War II veterans are being lost by the day. Over the past year, Post 1620 was among the top 25 VFW posts in the nation in terms of percentage membership growth, Thompson said. The post has reached out to younger veterans coming back from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For example, Thompson and other Post 1620 members did more than just walk alongside Penn State Harrisburg veterans raising money for the cause – the post went on to match the amount that the student vets raised.
“We brought in a lot of active members from Penn State” as a result, Thompson said. “That really looks good out in the community,” to see younger vets working alongside those of The Greatest Generation.
The award symbolizes how far the post has come, said Thompson, who prefers to not dwell on the past.
“We’ve been humble for a long time,’’ he said. “It’s good to see that the hard work is paying off.”
To Stutzman, the new commander, the award means that “there are a lot of dedicated people that did not want to see this post close.”