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GRCC, VFW Post 1741 honor student veterans at Coin Ceremony
By Jesse Jose
For the Auburn Reporter
It's called the "Coin Ceremony."
Actually, it's a pizza luncheon actually, held annually, at Green River Community College.
It's more than a luncheon, it's a celebration in honor of student veterans of the college and VFW Post 1741.
"At this yearly event," said Tim Lovitt, director of Veterans Affairs at the college, "we have some big-name speakers come and talk about the importance of military service ... and to give all of the student veterans, who have not yet received a GRCC Challenge Coin, a thank you for all they have given."
Guest speaker was Bill Peloza, City Councilmember and former commander of VFW Post 1741 of Auburn. Special guests included the following VFW Post 1741 officers: Pete Lewis, former mayor; Bob Newman, the post's historian; John Ely, the post's service officer; Jesse Jose, the post's surgeon; Mike Sepal, the post's former vice commander; and Joe Audino, a World War II and Korean War Navy veteran.
Dr. Eileen Ely, college president, and Dr. Deb Casey, vice president of student affairs, also spoke at this event.
In attendance were 30 student veterans of the college.
Lewis presented the ceremonial coins to veterans and thanked them for their service.
"It's a great way for us," Lovitt said, "to honor the men and women who have served. This year we thought it would be cool to combine the VFW 1741 pizza lunch with the ceremony and bring these groups together to celebrate the partnership we have and promote goodwill in this festive event."
Lovitt, a former Army sergeant who saw combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said, "VFW Post 1741 supports the student veterans in several ways."
"The first," he said, "is the annual scholarships the post sponsors. Each year the post sponsors two student veterans, soon to be three, a scholarship that helps out with their books and other school supplies. The recipients are also offered a free membership to the post, and that has been pretty successful in drawing new members out to 1741."
"The second is that the post hosts a monthly pizza lunch for the student veterans. The first Friday of every month the Post buys several pizzas, and we encourage our student veterans to come and meet with each other. I provide a large space for the meeting on the main campus and we draw about 30 people each time," Lovitt said. "And this raises awareness about the current events and activities, as well as encourages the students to interact with VFW Post 1741."
The Auburn post and GRCC have been partnering for the past three years, Lovitt said. However, the partnership has been seeing the fruits of its labor for the past nine months.
"During this time," Lovitt said, "we have seen new student veterans step forward as post officers, an increase in the number of scholarships awarded, the creation of a SVA (Student Veterans of America) chapter and more student veteran participation in post activities."
"And that includes these pizza lunches," he added.
The SVA is a national nonprofit organization created to provide help and guidance to student veterans organization in higher education. The relationship between the VFW and the SVA dates back to the founding of the SVA in January 2008, and was made official on Jan. 3, 2013, with a signing of a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the SVA and the VFW.
The memorandum provides opportunities for the VFW and SVA to pool their resources and help veterans and service members to overcome many challenges, find strength in camaraderie, and provide expanded programs for veterans on college campuses nationwide.
Because of this memorandum, there are now 7,200 VFW posts and 1,200 VA-accredited claims service officers, and SVA chapters located on more than 700 college and university campuses, nationwide.
How the partnership began
In his speech, Peloza related how this partnership between VFW 1741 and GRCC came into being.
"Approximately, six years ago," he said, "Mike Sepal, as VFW 1741 vice commander, and I, as post commander, discussed ways and means of connecting with the GRCC's veteran activities. Mike made contact with the Veterans Office at GRCC.
"I am also familiar with GRCC," Peloza said. "I've had connections here when I worked for The Boeing Co."
What came next from this initial contact was the creation of the GRCC Veterans Office Relief Fund, and VFW Post 1741's initial funding with "seed funds" of $500.
Tyler Oliver, a five-year Army Iraq war veteran and president of GRCC's Veterans Club and Adjutant for Post 1741, thanked the post for their support in being able to "make all ends meet financially."
Oliver said that that he was the "recipient of a clerical error on the part of the VA and it caused me to go without benefits for almost three months, something that I have only now started to overcome.
"These past two quarters at GRCC, I received a general veteran scholarship, funded in part by the VFW 1741," Oliver pointed out. "This has given me a safety net of sorts, allowing me to purchase my school supplies."
Peloza said that the Veteran's Lunch Pizza Program was started because "we wanted a connection with student veterans at GRCC. We wanted to recruit new candidates into the VFW program."
The initial funding has grown in a positive way to help veterans between paydays and other emergencies.
"Post 1741 was exceedingly happy to assist," Peloza said. "Why? Because that is the mission of VFW. Help another veteran.
"Three years ago, "Peloza said, "we initiated our first Post 1741 GRCC $1,500 veterans scholarship. On the second year, we added a second $1,500 scholarship. At our recent May monthly meeting, we approved to award a third $1,500 scholarship for 2014. In addition, the veteran awardee is given a VFW Post lifetime membership.
"The monies that support the Veterans Relief Fund," Peloza said, "are gained by VFW Poppy Drives in the Auburn community.
Other community endeavors
Peloza also mentioned that VFW Post 1741 sponsor sports, Eagle Boy and Girl Scout programs, youth essay scholarship programs and a community flag program.
"If we see a worn or torn 3-by-5 American flag," he said, "we replace it for free and give the receiver an envelope and ask them to make a conscionable donation to the Auburn Food Bank in Post 1741's name."
For these community endeavors, Peloza said that the Auburn post was recognized with a VFW national award that is "proudly displayed in our post."
Peloza concluded his speech, saying that Auburn VFW Post was designated an "All-American Post" in 2011-12 by the national VFW headquarters and "is very honored to be associated with GRCC and will continue to assist veterans in our community."