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'BENT NOT BROKEN': VFW OFFERS RELIEF IN THE WAKE OF DESTRUCTION

by Kelly Gibson

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Joplin_Charley.jpg
Charles Patrick of Missouri's District 7 and Post 2203 in Shell Knob, Mo., stands near
some of the tornado destruction left behind.

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Post 534 Ladies Auxiliary Vice President Jackie Collins finds a small family photo album
among the debris.

Charles Patrick said the rubble of Joplin reminded him of a Kansas wheat field, freshly harvested, where the only structure visible for miles might be a grain silo in the distance.

“There was nothing,” said Patrick, the Department of Missouri District 7 chief of staff. “Rubble … nothing. There was no bark on any trees. What you see on TV doesn’t even compare to what you see in reality.”

On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado ripped through the center of Joplin, Mo., devastating more than 8,000 buildings and killing 160 people.

Jackie Collins and her husband had been listening to the police scanner that evening. When she heard a plea by deputies for body bags, she and her husband hopped in their car and drove the 20 miles from their home to Post 534 in Joplin, Mo.

“We wanted to open the [Post] that night, but the phones weren’t working,” said Collins, Post 534 Ladies Auxiliary senior vice president. “We knew it was a horrific disaster, but we couldn’t get a hold of most of our members.”

Collins and Post Commander Gerry Wiseman agreed to meet early the next morning with local first responders to assess the needs. Wiseman said they decided to utilize the Post building as a relief hub—a pick-up and drop-off point for goods and first aid.

At the same time, Department of Missouri District 7 sprang into action. Patrick rushed to Joplin to offer assistance, arriving two days after the tornado. He helped Collins and Wiseman coordinate relief efforts out of the Post with 40 volunteers assisting to distribute clothing, food, water and toiletries. Posts spanning from Carthage, Mo., to Germany donated money and supplies.

“The outpouring of support by VFW has been amazing,” Patrick said.

This year has been one of the deadliest tornado seasons ever recorded, with 1,168 documented tornadoes and some 560 tornado-related deaths. Because of such widespread damage across the nation from an abnormally high number of natural disasters, VFW’s Unmet Needs program has dispersed more than $103,000 in financial assistance to some 264 people.

“Unfortunate events such as these well illustrate the vitality of the Unmet Needs program on a large scale,” said Mike Penney, director of VFW National Military Services (NMS). “When our service members are suddenly displaced, left without food or even basic supplies, VFW does not stand idly by. We act.”

People Helping People’

Volunteers at Post 534 worked tirelessly to provide food, clothing and medical assistance to anyone in need. Some 88 tables piled high with goods filled the Post’s bingo hall and were emptied and refilled several times a day.

“A lot of the people who came in were living on convenience store food,” Collins said. “They could come to the Post and shop, eat, get hugs. We offered chaplain services. These people wanted prayer. They needed reassurance.”

Over the course of two weeks, the Post provided 400 families with food. Volunteers served more than 2,500 meals, found six people on the missing persons list and worked with DAV to transport 350 victims to area medical centers. Wiseman encouraged everyone in the community to stop by the Post if they were in need, whether or not they were a veteran.

Most Post members were lucky and did not sustain a lot of damage. Patrick said much of the effort was directed toward members of the Army National Guard’s 203rd Engineer Battalion (featured in the March 2011 issue) living in the area who lost their homes.

“They had just gotten back from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan and they got called back out to protect their houses from looters,” Patrick said. “They couldn’t even tell where the houses were.”

Communication was vital, especially in the first three days of efforts, said Collins. She kept the public informed on the progress of relief efforts by updating the Post’s Facebook page often. She also encouraged others in the community to update their Facebook pages to reflect how they were doing so that family and friends knew they were all right.

Wiseman contacted the radio station to let the community know the Post was operating as a distribution center. Volunteers walked in off the street to help restock tables, unload trucks and serve food.

“The accolades should go to the volunteers,” Wiseman said. “I can’t thank them enough.”

The U.S. flag, a symbol of strength and determination, became an icon for the tornado-ravaged community. Dozens appeared atop the rubble, tattered but still waving proudly, telling of an optimistic community set to rebuild quickly.

“Joplin is bent but not broken,” Patrick said, indicating that assistance from all levels of VFW made relief efforts possible. “It’s hard to pick individuals that stand out. It was just people helping people. They all came together to help each other.”

‘We Are All Neighbors’

Only a month prior to the tornado in Joplin, another community experienced similar devastation. On April 27, 2011, Tuscaloosa, Ala., was hit with an EF-4 tornado that caused millions of dollars worth of damage and killed 44 people. That tornado was part of a supercell of severe weather that hit Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, producing some 300 tornadoes and killing 366 people within the span of only three days. Posts across the nation were quick to respond.

Indiana’s District 7 moved swiftly, using Post 7117 in Worthington, Ind., as a disaster relief collection hub. Items were donated from Posts in the surrounding area, resulting in 40,000 pounds of goods—enough to fill a 48-foot semitrailer. Post 6022 in Cottondale, Ala., received the goods and acted as a distribution center for those in need.

“Being a small Post of only 200 in a rural community, we are always willing to help when our funds allow,” Ken Stalcup, commander of Post 7117, said.

Stalcup said his Post had no ties to anyone in Alabama, but saw an opportunity to help and took it. He also said that by helping out he has formed a strong bond with other VFW members in Alabama.

The houses of two Post 6022 members were destroyed in the storm. One Ladies Auxiliary member died.

“The outpouring of care and hope from VFW Posts in other areas of Alabama and out of state was simply heartwarming,” said Walter Turner, Post 6022 commander. “It will be a long, hard road to getting back to a sense of normalcy, but we have had a great beginning and outpouring of heartfelt sympathy.”

Various other Posts assisted by donating money, including Post 4895 in Clarksville, Tenn., Post 649 Ladies Auxiliary in Augusta, Ga., Post 6441 Ladies Auxiliary in Wimberley, Texas, and Post 2566 in Baumholder, Germany.

“Sometimes it takes something of this magnitude to make us realize that we are all part of the community,” Turner said. “We are all neighbors and we need to help those in need. The outpouring of help, especially from the VFW standpoint, brings a whole new meaning to ‘veterans helping veterans.’ ”

Turner said he was glad to represent VFW as an organization that the community can depend on in a time of need.

While Tuscaloosa and the surrounding areas are well on the way in the rebuilding process, Turner said there is still work to be done in the community to heal.

“Tuscaloosa commissioned a committee to research how we can rebuild in a more ‘green’ manner and be a more close-knit community,” Turner said. “It is like a blank canvas to paint a new city.”

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