Giving Back to Our Heroes

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10/28/2011

Knights honor veterans and their service through lasting volunteerism

by Mary Zurolo Walsh

witness

Father Cosmas Archibong, Catholic chaplain of the West Haven VA Medical Center, blesses a handicap-accessible bus during a dedication in 2009.

When Berton Francoeur arrived at the Yale-West Haven VA Medical Center in Connecticut, he wasted no time before coming face-to-face with the needs of his fellow veterans. Francoeur, an 89-year-old Knight with a cheerful demeanor, met two men whose legs had been amputated.

Returning from their successful mission, Francoeur presented
a seemingly improbable wish: “We’re going to have our own van,”
he announced.
“Everyone said,
‘You’re crazy.’ ”

“They hadn’t been out of the building in two years,” recalled Francoeur, who himself is a double amputee.

Upon meeting his new friends, Francoeur invited the two men out to dinner. He then contacted a public bus service that provides handicap-accessible transportation along fixed routes and managed to arrange an outing to Jimmies of Savin Rock, a popular seafood restaurant on the Long Island Sound.

Returning from their successful mission, Francoeur, who is a member of Holy Father John Paul II Council 14326 in West Haven, presented a seemingly improbable wish: “We’re going to have our own van,” he announced. “Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy.’”

Nonetheless, Francoeur passed the idea to fellow Knight Gary L. Thomas, who was then the newly appointed state representative for the Veterans Affairs Volunteer Service (VAVS) program. Thomas offered to help, and a committee including Francoeur and several other veterans helped strategize a plan to design and obtain a large, accessible van for the West Haven VA.

The two Knights were soldiers from different eras: Francoeur enlisted in the U.S. Army one week after Pearl Harbor and served as a pole line construction worker in countries such as Egypt, India and Libya, whereas Thomas served as a Portuguese linguist during Vietnam. Yet, these two men had come together to help veterans in need.

Eighteen months later, with the help of fellow Connecticut Knights and veterans, the Veterans’ Amputee Support Group had raised $108,000 — over $11,000 more than the total sum needed to purchase a small bus specially equipped for amputee passengers.

Such stories of K of C volunteers coming to the aid of men and women who have served their country are not uncommon. Throughout the United States, the Order’s participation in VAVS allows Knights to help veterans restricted by immobility, imprisoned by loneliness or limited by a lack of knowledge of available services to gain independence, companionship and awareness.

DIVERSE SERVICE

Managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the volunteer program draws volunteers from hundreds of organizations and aims to serve American veterans and their families with dignity and compassion. The Knights of Columbus was appointed to the program in 2002 and has since distinguished itself by volunteering in the vast majority of all VA medical facilities nationwide through “Serving Those Who Served,” a fraternal initiative executed through the Order’s Fourth Degree, which is dedicated to the principle of patriotism.

The Knights “seem to get how valuable their volunteer service is,” said Laura Balun, director of the VA Voluntary Service Office. “I can’t say all 350 organizations [that work with us] get that.”

witness

The bus was donated after resident Berton Francoeur (left) and fellow Knight Gary Thomas initiated a fundraising campaign.

Knights currently volunteer at 139 of the 153 VA medical centers throughout the country, according to Balun, and in 2010, there were 946 K of C members who volunteered more than 98,000 hours — an increase of about 8,000 hours compared to 2009.

The Knights of Columbus is also a member of the National Advisory Committee to the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs and, due to its large representation in VA hospitals, serves on the committee’s executive committee. In that capacity, the Order has the unique ability to influence VAVS policy, according to retired Marine Col. Charles Gallina, the Knights’ assistant for military and veterans’ affairs.

“We are not a veterans’ service organization,” said Gallina. “We come to the table as a Catholic fraternal service organization, which brings nothing more than our willingness to support the program based on our principle of charity. It is because of our respect and appreciation of veterans and what they have done for us that we serve.”

At the local level, Knights fill veterans’ needs in a variety of ways. K of C volunteers regularly escort veterans to and from medical appointments, serve as drivers, staff information desks at VA medical facilities, and distribute rosaries and prayer books. They provide direct support to the Catholic chaplains at the VA hospitals and take veterans to and from Mass on a regular basis.

Additionally, the Knights of Columbus has partnered with the Global Wheelchair Mission to assist veterans with disabilities. In 2007, the Order donated 2,000 wheelchairs with a total value of $1 million to veterans in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and the Dallas area. Twelve cadets representing Msgr. O’Keefe Council 8250 at West Point received special permission to help with the wheelchair donation in Washington. Smaller scale distributions have followed.

State Deputy Peter A. Gabauer Jr. of the District of Columbia recalled when Knights from local universities distributed wheelchairs at Washington’s VA Medical Center on Veterans Day 2008. A man in his early 90s pushed his brother in a heavy wooden wheelchair that dated back to World War II. When he received a new, lighter wheelchair, along with a cup of coffee and gratitude for his service, he began to cry.

“Sometimes it might seem like giving a cup of coffee is not that important, but it makes an enormous difference,” Gabauer said. “Somebody cared about their service and remembered them, and that is what this is all about.”

Gabauer has also participated in local stand-down events for homeless veterans over the past several years. The day begins when homeless veterans are invited off the streets and into a local VA medical center. The veterans receive a medical check up, followed by various stations that include information on how to file taxes and how to find a place to live, a process that usually enables the veterans to obtain housing that very day. A free dinner and new clothing donations cap off the event.

“It’s simply an honor to support those who served and protected this country,” said Gabauer.

Cardinal James Hickey, Prince of the Church Assembly, of which Gabauer is a member, also staffs a pharmacy coffee cart at the Washington VA Medical Center for veterans who are waiting to pick up their medications.

Stephanie Burns, chief of volunteer service for the facility, said that the Knights’ work makes the waiting time pass quickly.

“That is such a service,” said Burns. “Here you’ve got someone with a smile and a friendly face.”

More importantly, Thomas and his fellow Knights helped the veterans reclaim what they had fought to provide for their fellow countrymen: “These men and women fought for our freedom, and now they have the freedom to come and go.”

THE GIFT OF FREEDOM

There are plenty of smiles among the amputees who use the handicap-accessible bus that is now available at the West Haven VA. With their new transportation, the veterans are free to go on various outings, including to restaurants, shows and sporting events. The vehicle fosters a brotherhood among those veterans who use it since it can carry up to eight motorized wheelchairs at once.

“With the van we can go out as a group,” Francoeur said. “You have the advantage of being more friendly with each other and getting to know what people like and don’t like.”

But more importantly, he added, Thomas and his fellow Knights have helped the veterans reclaim what they had fought to provide for their fellow countrymen: “These men and women fought for our freedom, and now they have the freedom to come and go.”

It is also significant that the vehicle has enabled veterans to attend the funerals of close friends, such as Jimmy Pauneto, a Vietnam vet and member of the veterans’ support group, who died last February.

Marty Onieal, a 95-year-old veteran of World War II, has taken a number of rides in the bus and compares his newfound freedom to “winning the lottery.”

“We never expected so much,” said Onieal, who served on the crew of the Queen Mary and was an infantryman during the African invasion in 1942.

For Thomas, helping veterans is especially meaningful to him in light of his experience as a veteran and a Knight, and because both his father and father-in-law received the Purple Heart. He is also impressed by the character of individual veterans, particularly those who are amputees.

“I’ve never heard any of these guys complain about not having legs,” Thomas said, adding that he is currently trying to form a discussion group for veterans to help them understand the positive roles they play in society.

“I want to try to make them realize how important they are, not only to each other but to other Americans,” Thomas added. “Lots of people see them and say, ‘There goes an American hero.’ They are icons to many people and they don’t realize it.”

Mary Zurolo Walsh writes from Hamden, Conn.