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Service never stops: Willow Valley Communities’ Veterans Committee shares resources, plans events

“I was drafted. That refers to both the Veterans Committee and the war,” Bob Dills, U.S. Army veteran and Willow Valley Communities resident, said jokingly.

Dills served in the Army for 30 years, with 8 1/2 of those years being in active duty. He started in the Army working in computer maintenance. Now, as a retiree, he’s a part of an active Veterans Committee at Willow Valley Communities, the residential 55-and-over community in Willow Street.

Dills is one of seven members on the committee who represent a significant veteran population at Willow Valley Communities.

More than 300 of Willow Valley Communities’ roughly 2,400 residents are veterans says Betty Price, chairperson of the Veterans Committee and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. Price says veterans at Willow Valley have served in conflicts dating back to World War II.

The committee was founded four years ago by late Willow Valley Communities resident and veteran Andy Kasznay to create a community and provide more resources for veterans.

Together, the committee works to plan events, bring in speakers and generate newsletters for other Willow Valley veterans and residents. The committee meets once a month and is continually brainstorming new ways to get more residents involved, from special events on Memorial Day and Veterans Day to laid-back movie nights.

“Our basic goal, what we form our purpose around, is to inform, connect and serve,” Price said.

Advocating for others

Price was commissioned in 1973 and served in the Air Force for 26 years. In the 1970s, it was rare for women to serve in the military, and the ones who did wanted to stick to the “traditional jobs,” like working as a nurse, Price explained.

During her service, Price worked as a recruiter to help other women secure military jobs that were previously seen as “nontraditional.” Later, she worked at the Air Force Academy helping it prepare for its first class of female cadets.

At Willow Valley, she stumbled into the role as chairperson after Kasznay’s death in 2021. Now, she helps organize the committee’s events and meetings.

The Veterans Committee also creates a quarterly newsletter for Willow Valley residents. Along with information about upcoming events, the newsletter includes information for veterans to learn more about the resources available to them through Veterans Affairs, such as disability compensation and burial coverage.

Committee member Dan Cooper is intimately familiar with these resources; he worked at the VA for six years helping veterans secure disability compensation. Before that, he served 34 years in the Navy, where he mainly worked with the submarine force.

Initially, Cooper described himself as “reticent” about the committee. He wanted to make sure they were well-informed to help other veterans.

“I was sincerely impressed,” Cooper said. “We know what we’re talking about.”

Andy Chirico, a Marines veteran and Veterans Committee member, also values educating veterans on benefits that are available to them.

“It’s important to inform what rights they have and figure out what we can do,” Chirico said.

Chirico recounted stories of how the VA helped a spouse of a deceased veteran, a veteran who received compensation from the VA to buy his own house and veterans who received benefits due to Agent Orange exposure, a military herbicide.

In many cases, veterans “don’t realize what is available,” Chirico said.

Army veteran and author Don Helin is the editor of the newsletter. His role is a good example of the committee making use of each member’s personal talents. After his Army service, Helin worked as a travel writer. He’s now an accomplished author of thrillers, with eight books to his name. He’s also published a memoir, “ From Army Regulations to Novels: A Writer’s Journey,” and now teaches a class at Willow Valley on memoir writing, helping other residents capture their memories.

But prior to his writing career, he spent 28 years of active duty in the Army.

“During that time, I did most of the things a guy does in the Army. I was overseas in Germany, spent tours in Vietnam, and I was assigned to different stateside posts,” Helin said.

Stan Szymendera, an Air Force reserves veteran, works as the newsletter’s graphic designer. Szymendera was in the Air Force reserves for 22 years, during which he worked as a school principal in Philadelphia and Bristol.

Organizing events

Offering a “different perspective” as the only veteran on the committee who was never in active duty, Szymendera helps design the newsletter and advocate for other veterans who may not have been in active duty, but are just as important.

The main reasons Air Force veteran Paul Reid joined the Veterans Committee are the same things he enjoyed about serving in the military: a shared mission, values and the people.

“That’s probably why we sought out this committee,” Reid said.

After moving 18 times and working in half a dozen different careers, Reid worked as the president of Williamson College of the Trades, a three-year technical college in Media, Delaware County.

One of his favorite events the committee has organized was the flag retiring ceremony, held in June 2021, to properly dispose of a flag that is heavily worn through a burning ceremony. Reid said the ceremony was “very heartwarming.”

Many other committee members echoed Reid’s sentiments, considering it one of the committee’s best events to date.

The Veterans Committee also hosts Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs annually.

More than 300 Willow Valley residents were in attendance at this year’s Memorial Day program, held at Willow Valley’s Cultural Center Theatre, on May 26.

Willow Valley Communities resident Sue Culbertson, whose father went MIA during service with the Air Force when she was 7, was the event’s main speaker. Culbertson’s father, Air Force Captain Gene Culbertson, was shot down while bombing an enemy supply line in Korea known as Black 16 in 1953 during the Korean War, according to a past edition of the Veterans Committee’s newsletter.

The Memorial Day Program also included the setting of a POW/MIA table, to honor and remember prisoners of war and those who are missing in action.

This Veterans Day, the Veterans Committee is working to coordinate Gary Steele, the first Black football player to play on West Point Academy’s team, to speak at the event.

“We want to pick a person to tell the story,” Price said.

Article published by LNP | LancasterOnline

Written by Chloe Miller | Staff writer at LNP

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