Caring for those who serve
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Caring for those who serve

Helping GIs and vets

Back in 2003, Mary-Edna Krutchkoff of Fair Lawn was driving out of her company parking lot when her car was struck by another. She called her husband, Alan, who at first was angry at the other driver.

Don’t blame the other driver, Mary-Edna said, because the woman had a lot on her mind – her son-in-law, in the military, was going to Iraq.

Alan’s anger immediately mellowed, as he tells it, and he “adopted” the son-in-law, buying supplies for him to take along.

Out of that grew the volunteer organization Adopt-a-Soldier Platoon, a grass-roots organization that sends food and care items to service people overseas.

Veterans Day (November 11) comes once a year, but troops serving are remembered year-round by organizations that send good wishes and needed items to service members overseas and give comfort to loved ones at home. There are locally-based groups, such as Adopt-a-Soldier, and also national organizations.

One such national organization is the USO, standing for United Service Organization, which has been around for some 70 years and continues to serve at 160 locations worldwide, including seven in Afghanistan, said spokeswoman Gayle Fishel.

Perhaps best known over the years for sending celebrities to entertain the troops, a role it still plays, the USO does much more. “Today’s USO isn’t your grandfathers USO of care packages and Bob Hope,” she said.

Personal items, electronics, and entertainment items are sent to GIs in remote areas. Phone calls home are arranged. Support is given to wounded service people and to families back home, and to families of those who have fallen.

The non-profit organization relies on donations and volunteer staffers. Check uso.org for more information.

The American Legion, under “Operation Comfort Warriors,” provides items that the government does not – CDs, DVDs and iPods, pool tables, and exercise gear for hospitalized soldiers.

Under the “Temporary Financial Assistance” program, the group aids children of deceased or disabled veterans. There is scholarship aid for dependent children.

The “Family Support Network” gives financial support and assistance with household chores to families of active duty service members. Veterans service officers help with claims, and makes certain that veterans get all to which they are entitled. Check njamericanlegion.org for details.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) conducts similar programs through its network of local posts and districts, or counties, said Bob Pinto, the New Jersey state adjutant quartermaster. Financial and other aid is available to families of service members, and assistance is available to returning veterans in dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), getting medical care, and finding jobs.

Among its efforts is the VFW’s “Adopt-A-Unit” program for those serving overseas. The program sends care and comfort items for the body, and helps improve morale by sponsoring call-home services for holidays. Donations are accepted. Check www.vfw.org.

For returning veterans, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) helps veterans and their families navigate the bureaucracy and “get what they deserve” from the VA, said spokesman Dave Autry. The DAV helps active duty personnel returning to civilian life with paper work and medical records and paperwork.

The organization also has a “large cadre” of volunteers that provide services at VA hospitals, as well as transportation to and from the hospitals for disabled veterans, Autry said. The DAV relies on donations for much of its work. Go to www.dav.org.

Locally, there is the Adopt-A-Soldier Platoon founded by the Krutchkoffs. It is Bergen County-based, and sends food and care items, said Krutchkoff .

The group welcomes donations of items or cash, and is staffed entirely by volunteers, Krutchkoff said. Items are shipped by mail from a warehouse in Cresskill, he said.

He recalled the Vietnam war years, when “guys coming home were treated badly,” he said. “We’re apolitical, ” he said. “It’s about civic pride and Americans taking care of Americans.”

Adopt-A-Soldier is staffed by a core of approximately 30 volunteers, he said. They have some 160 contacts in various units, largely in Afghanistan. Donors can send items directly, or give to the group. For information go to www.adooptasoliderplatoon.org.

The New Jersey Elks Army of Hope has a four-fold mission: Sending items to those serving overseas; sending personal care items to wounded soldiers being flown out of Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan; assisting families who have lost loved ones in combat; and assisting wounded New Jersey troops back in the United States.

An “army” of volunteer professionals and craftspeople are available to assist families back home with appropriate services.

The program began 2005, said Bruce Totten, one of the charter committee members, and they expected the mission to last two years. “We’ll keep doing it until our loved ones are all home,” he said.

For information go to njelks.org, click first on “committees” and then on “Army of Hope,” or contact a local Elks lodge, Totten said.

The Holmdel-based Lt. Dennis W. Zilinski II Memorial Fund was established by friends and family of Dennis Zilinski, who was killed in Bayji, Iraq, in 2005. “We are a small organization trying to make an impact,” said the soldier’s father, also named Dennis.

The all-volunteer group provides money to ease the financial strain on wounded service people and their families, and also aids families who have lost loved ones, Zilinski said.

The group has paid for a hand-cranked bicycle for a wounded veteran and money has been raised for a second one, Zilinski said.

“Additionally,” according to its mission statement, “by providing scholarships, the Fund invests in the future of high school students who embody the leadership qualities and community spirit of Lt. Zilinski.”

The Lt. Dennis W. Zilinski II Memorial Fund relies on fundraising, including a run Nov. 13 at the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel. It also sponsors an annual night out at the Lakewood BlueClaws baseball team and a golf outing. The group also sends donations to other groups engaged in similar work. Check runwithdennis.org.

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