Tahlequah Daily Press


May 9, 2012

Veterans groups have busy schedules

TAHLEQUAH — Cherokee County boasts several active veterans organizations, with overlapping members – and some of them are rising to prestigious positions.

The Tahlequah Blackfox-Hartness American Legion Post 135 has a member serving as the Oklahoma East Vice Commander, and when July comes around, it could have its first state commander represented.

Post 135-member John “Wes” Benge is the Oklahoma American Legion East vice commander and is the favorite among post members across the state to assume the role of Oklahoma’s AL commander, said Tahlequah AL Post 135 Commander Tony O’seland.

“We’re pretty confident he’s going to win,” said O’seland. “We know this from talking to people around the state who are eligible to vote.”

The election will be held in early July, and members across the state are already discussing who they’ll report as their chosen candidate when the numbers are read aloud at the summer conference in Oklahoma City. Benge has been “all over Oklahoma on commander tours” and has an idea of what to expect in July.

“The polls have me way ahead right now,” said Benge. “We have 500-something American Legions in the state, and I’ve got 95 percent of them right now. I guess I’ll be the first from Tahlequah as state commander. I might also be the first Cherokee citizen, from what I understand, too.”

Benge makes routine trips to Washington, D.C., as chairman of the state’s legislation committee, and also serves as national legislation committee vice chairman.

“I go to Washington three or four times a year when they call us on Capitol Hill on sensitive issues,” he said. “We make sure they don’t take away the money they’ve allotted to us.”

The leading issue Benge and fellow members try to address whenever they’re in Washington – or find themselves standing in front of a member of Congress – is the flag desecration amendment, often referred to as the flag-burning amendment.

“It’s always shot down by one or two votes,” he said. “So we try to work on that with the senators. They say it’s a form of expression, and it’s not. It’s a form of physical expression. We’ve been fighting that for a long time.”

O’seland said Post 135 is taking nominations for next year’s officers.

“This Thursday at our monthly meeting, we’ll be doing final nominations for officers,” he said. “Candidates are, for commander, James Savage; for first vice commander, Jerry Gay. Second vice commander is Russell Boyd. Then there’s myself for adjutant and for finance officer, Tommy Pack. We’ll be taking nominations from the floor again during the meeting, and the elections will be held at the July meeting.”

O’seland said other Post 135 activity includes the weekly turkey shoot, held every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and plans for a series of garage sales are  being discussed.

The Tahlequah Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3707 recently elected officers for next year, said Post Commander Kenneth Rystedt.

“We elected John Martin as the commander,” said Rystedt. “Me as the senior vice commander. Dan Garber as the junior vice commander, and Bill Taylor is the quartermaster. They take office the first of July.”

Rystedt said there’s a push to get younger veterans involved in the local war-veteran organization.

“We really need younger members to join the VFW,” he said. “I think we only have one guy, who is the youngest, from Desert Storm. Most of us are Vietnam or Korea or World War II veterans.”

Interested veterans are urged to visit the post on Mondays or Wednesdays. The Monday bingo game, which helps raise food for the CARE Food Pantry, begins at 6:30 p.m., and the VFW offers veterans and their families coffee doughnuts from 9 a.m. to noon on every Wednesday. Rystedt said a service officer is made available at the Wednesday event to help veterans and their families with claims and other necessary paperwork.

“Veterans interested in joining can come by the post either on Monday during bingo and my wife will get them an application, or come on Wednesdays,” said Rystedt.

Rystedt said the bingo game, which is open to the public, helps raise food for the food pantry.

“If you bring canned food, you get a free game,” he said. “We take that and turn it into the food pantry. The VFW Auxiliary does fundraisers. They had the wild onion and egg dinner in April, and they did real well. They’re at the hospital right now.”

Rystedt said the VFW Auxiliary visits veterans in local hospitals once a month and equips them with shopping certificates.

“They hand out $5 coupon books,” he said. “They also donate to the food pantry. My wife is the president of that organization. They have a bean dinner on Veterans Day.”

Any veterans interested in joining American Legion Post 50 are welcome to attend meetings on the second Monday of the month, at 6 p.m., at the Legion Hut at the Sequoyah City Park. The post commander is Nelda Littlejohn, who could not be reached by press time.

Contact with the Tahlequah Disabled American Veterans group was attempted, but comments on group activity and officer elections were unavailable at press time.

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